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Falling Back – Twice

person holding an old-fashioned analog alarm clock just below chest height
photo by Marco Verch

Autumn was always my favorite time of year when I lived in the Northeast, and not only because I liked the colorful foliage and the reprieve from summer humidity. I also looked forward to that extra hour of sleep at the end of daylight saving time.

These days I spend most of my time in Florida, where humidity doesn’t end with the equinox and the foliage stays green all year. I still like the extra hour of sleep, though – and this year, I get to enjoy it twice.

I am in Europe on vacation with my wife this week. We fly back to Florida from Copenhagen on Sunday night. As it happens, Sunday morning is when all 28 countries of the European Union will come off their version of daylight saving time, which has different names in different places. In the United Kingdom, for example, it goes by BST: British Summer Time. The EU has three time zones overall, but everyone sets their clocks forward and back on the same dates.

We don’t follow precisely the same schedule in the States. Our summer time change begins earlier than in Europe and ends later. Europe begins its summer time on the last Sunday in March and ends it on the last Sunday in October; we start on the second Sunday in March and end it on the first Sunday in November (Nov. 4 this year). So because of my travel, I will get to enjoy that extra hour of sleep two weeks in a row.

This kind of fluke doesn’t happen often, at least not for me. And at some point it might not happen for anybody at all. Though it has been around, off and on, since World War I, daylight saving time has never achieved universal acceptance, even in countries that adopted it. Part of the United States doesn’t use it, in fact. Since the 1960s, most of Arizona has spent part of the year on Mountain Time and then, when the rest of the country moves its clocks ahead by one hour, effectively joins the Pacific time zone. (The Navajo Nation, which occupies a portion of northeastern Arizona, does observe daylight saving time, however.) Hawaii observes Hawaii Standard Time all year. And several other states have unsuccessfully tried to do away with the observance, especially in the past few years, though none has succeeded so far.

Now clock management may become one more thing that challenges the unity of the European Union. While all members currently move their clocks forward and back in unison, the EU Commission proposed ending daylight time in August, since a survey found that most Europeans opposed it. Unfortunately, now the EU is caught in a battle over which time to permanently adopt. People in the sunnier southern countries favor a permanent shift to “summer” time – the better to enjoy their long, mild evenings – while northerners would prefer to leave standard time alone. The Wall Street Journal reported that policymakers in Brussels are considering allowing each country to set its own rules, which is apt to cause all sorts of complications for commerce across the EU’s internal borders.

Disunity across close borders could also happen as a result of Brexit. If the United Kingdom exits the EU, there will no longer be automatic synchronization of clocks between the Irish Republic and Northern Ireland, which is part of the United Kingdom.

In our internet age, it is unlikely we could ever go back to the chaos of pre-standardized time, in which every city or town set its own time to the minute. After all, airlines need to be able to plan their routes and shipping companies need to know when packages will arrive. But adding more time zones, even relative to standard time, may create needless confusion.

Exactly what is standard time, anyway? As a baseline, it is the time originally determined at the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, England, near London: Greenwich Mean Time. It is also known as Universal Coordinated Time (UTC, using its French acronym), or sometimes in government and transportation circles just as Zulu. Each global time zone is measured in reference to GMT. Most of continental Western Europe is GMT +1. Our Eastern U.S. time zone is GMT -5; Pacific time is GMT -8. A few places, notably including all of India, also use half-hour deviations from GMT.

I deal with the complexities of summer time all year, because I have clients and friends in Brazil. The big cities in eastern Brazil use the time in the country’s capital, which is GMT -3, or two hours ahead of Eastern time. But Brazil observes summer time – at least in some regions – during the Southern Hemisphere’s summer. When they set their clocks ahead and we are on standard time, the difference between us is three hours, not two. When we are on summer time and they are enduring their absurdly mild winters, it is just a one-hour difference.

Of course, now that we all communicate mainly with taps and keystrokes rather than our voices, this makes less of a difference. I don’t have to worry about accidentally calling too early in the morning – it is never too late at night to call a Brazilian – or interrupting a meal.

Removing daylight saving time and standardizing a single, all-year-round clock setting would smooth a few rough edges. I don’t particularly care which setting we use, but I like the idea of helping as many school children as possible leave for classes when the sun is up. That is the best argument in favor of standard time. So if I had to pick, that would be my choice.

Still, I would miss that extra hour of sleep every fall, even if I have to pay for it in advance by giving up an hour of shut-eye in the spring.

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