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Is time running out on daylight saving time?

Ask a group of students waiting in the dark for a school bus their opinion of daylight saving time, and some will say, “What’s that?” Others might shrug and reply, “Whatever.” “Meh.”

Ask a group of adults around the workplace coffeemaker about springing forward and falling back and one may mention that she appreciates the opportunity to play 18 holes of golf after work in May. But the others will likely offer a litany of complaints about late starts, missed commitments, groggy afternoons and sleepless nights. And there’s a good chance farmers will get blamed for the time change, even though the farming community has opposed daylight saving time for about a century or more.

In most of the United States, people will dial back the clocks one hour at 2 a.m. on Nov. 2, when daylight saving time ends. And they’ll wonder why.

A Rasmussen Report survey this year found that just 33 percent of Americans think DST is worth the hassle, a decline from 37 percent in 2013 and 45 percent in 2012. The same survey found that 48 percent of Americans say the clock-changing ritual is not worthwhile.

Meanwhile, petitions on Change.org to either abolish DST or establish year-round DST get endorsed with the type of vigor and venom usually associated with such hot-button topics as the minimum wage, abortion rights and marriage equality.

Historians and policy experts say the debate — Does daylight saving time conserve or waste energy? Harm health or expand recreational opportunity? Reduce or raise the risk of traffic accidents? — has been going tick-tock for about a century.

People can’t even agree on who gets the credit or blame for daylight saving time.

Ben Franklin wrote about the concept of making the sun set an hour later to conserve candles. But the first widespread implementation of daylight saving time didn’t occur until World War I in an effort to conserve energy. The theory was that the demand for artificial illumination would be less during lighter evenings.

Congress reinstated daylight saving time during World War II, but after that, with no federal law mandating DST, states and localities determined for themselves whether to implement time changes. 

Wisconsin didn’t warm up to DST until the late 1950s. Milwaukee  had flirted with DST in the 1920s, but opposition was so strong elsewhere that lawmakers passed a measure mandating standard time throughout the state and establishing penalties — fines and jail time — for rogue time-changers in Milwaukee.

Wisconsin continued to oppose daylight saving time during the war years, going so far as to suggest the state shift to Mountain Time, according to William F. Thompson, author of Continuity and Change, 1940-1965: History of Wisconsin. In 1947, Wisconsin voters defeated 379,740 to 313,091 an advisory referendum proposing a post-war period of statewide daylight saving time. Rural counties voted 4-1 against DST.

“The time change was a sore spot for farmers,” said Darcie Patterson, who grew up on a farm in Waupaca County. “Dad said putting the clocks forward in the spring messed with milking the cows and also getting out in the fields because they were still wet with dew in the mornings.”

In 1957, with a population shift to the cities and more than half the states observing DST, Wisconsin voters approved a ballot measure 55-45 percent to institute DST statewide. Another decade ticked away before Congress passed the Uniform Time Act. Congress voted to extend daylight saving time during the 1970s energy crisis, and lengthened DST in 1986, during the Reagan administration, and again in 2005, during the Bush administration.

Backed by some national studies and research out of California, political advocates cite energy conservation as the chief reason for the time change, but other studies reveal flaws in the argument. An investigation conducted in Indiana showed an increase in electrical bills after the state shifted to DST — residential demand for artificial lighting dropped but demand for air-conditioning increased.

“Policy that reduces energy consumption is important, but there’s a lot of debate about daylight saving time. We certainly don’t live like we did in 1944,” said Patterson, a supporter of the environmental group Earth Action. “Daylight saving time really isn’t about energy policy anymore, if it ever really was. You know, gasoline consumption actually tracks up during daylight saving time.”

This might explain why lobbying for daylight saving time comes from the retail, tourism and recreation industries, not from environmental groups. When the federal government extended DST in the 1980s, 7-Eleven and Clorox, parent company of Kingsford Charcoal, provided funding for the Daylight Saving Time Coalition. The Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association and the National Association of Convenience Stores drove the more recent extension. Why? Because setting the clock ahead in the spring expands evening recreation — barbecue enthusiasts can fire up the grill and golfers can hit the links even on a weekday night.

This leads some to say that daylight saving time boosts health and wellness.

However, research reveals that the time change can adversely impact health:

• A Better Sleep Council survey found that about 61 percent of adults feel the effects of DST the Monday after resetting their clocks.

• From the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health, Dr. David Plante, an expert in sleep disorders, said the time changes in the spring and fall could disrupt sleep controls, causing something akin to jet lag. People with sleep disorders can suffer even more.

• Research released in 2012 from the University of Alabama-Birmingham revealed an increase of 10 percent in the risk of heart attack on the Monday and Tuesday after DST begins and a decrease by about 10 percent in the days immediately after DST ends in the fall. Study author Martin Young, in a statement with the study, said, “Exactly why this happens is not known, but there are several theories. Sleep deprivation, the body’s circadian clock and immune responses all can come into play when considering reasons that changing the time by an hour can be detrimental to someone’s health.”

• A study from Stanford University analyzed 21 years of traffic data and showed a small but statistically significant increase in fatal traffic accidents the Sunday after a time change, even more so after the fall change.

• However, a review of data by the Rand Corporation suggested no impact on automobile crashes in the short-term and, in the long run, a drop in vehicular-pedestrian accidents and a decline of as much as 10 percent in vehicular crashes after DST was expanded from the last Sunday to the first Sunday in April in 1986. 

• Studies on crime rates and DST also conflict. The research seems inconclusive.

With questions about the pros and cons, Colorado, Idaho, Wyoming, Montana and especially Utah are re-evaluating daylight saving time. Arizona and Hawaii are the only states that do not observe DST.

Utah lawmakers could propose legislation next session to end or permanently establish DST — or take the issue to the voters. Earlier this year, the state invited public comment and found 62 percent in favor of eliminating daylight saving time.

“Recreation enthusiasts argue that the spring time change brings tourism and recreation dollars into the state coffers and farmers and ranchers have more daylight to complete their work,” Utah state Rep. Ronda Menlove stated. “However, parents and educators argue that the change has a negative impact on student learning at a critical point in the school year, when end-of-level tests are administered. Public safety officials note an increase in accidents at each change of time. This issue needs to be properly weighed and debated.”

So,  the age-old debate continues, especially around the second Sunday in March and first Sunday in November. Expect the conversation to begin on schedule, right after someone asks, “Is that old time or new time?”

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