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The new daylight saving time: Will it really work?

Once again, Americans will have the tiresome task of setting their clocks ahead by one hour. But this year it will happen three weeks earlier than usual, in the early hours of March 11, as part of the 2005 Energy Policy Act signed by President Bush.

While the exact amount of energy the nation saves has never been calculated, the added hour of evening daylight proves welcoming to most, though not all.

Daylight saving time, “unlike a real energy policy, doesn’t ask us to conserve,” said Michael Downing, author of “Spring Forward: The Annual Madness of Daylight Saving Time.” “There’s no direct cost to the consumer; therefore, not a lot of resistance.”

Previous attempts to expand daylight saving time met with heavy opposition, particularly from farmers. But for this newest resolution, the dissent was not nearly as strong as it had been in the past, said Dr. Joe Prerau, author of “Seize the Daylight” and a consultant to Congress during hearings on the issue.

Larry Smith, a farmer from Pender, Neb., says that he likes daylight saving time.

“I always work until 10 or 11 o’clock at night, sometimes later,” he said of harvesting his oats, corn, beans and hay. During the summer, the added evening daylight gives farmers a chance to play golf.

“A lot of farmers like to golf around here. There’s a league one night a week,” he said.

Farmers aren’t the only outdoor workers who welcome an added hour of daylight in the evening. Jerry Smits, who runs his own painting company in Southern California, says that he can get more work done with the time change. Since exterior paint has to be applied by 3 p.m. to dry properly, Smits can squeeze in another job during daylight saving time. The evening light also allows him to enjoy yard work and gardening during his spare time.

Luke Carr, who runs his own construction company in the same area, agrees.

Daylight saving time "allows me to work a little later; I get in more hours. I don’t start later, but take advantage of the daylight,” he said. The evening light also counters the need for artificial light when he works double shifts.

“It’s remarkably appealing. There’s a general good will towards it,” Downing said of public opinion toward the time shift.

Prerau notes that public opinion polls are consistent with that view.

Shop owners profit greatly from the time shift. According to Downing, the golf industry reported an added $200 million in green fees and equipment sales in 1986, when President Reagan added an extra month of daylight saving time. That same year, barbeque retailers reported a $200 million to $400 million increase in sales.

“Eventually, we’ll go to year-round daylight saving time,” Downing said. “It won’t be to save energy, as it has never been. More daylight makes people happy.”

The idea for daylight saving time originated when clocks were less common. Benjamin Franklin proposed the idea of waking up earlier to cut back on the use of expensive candles while living in France in 1784. In 1906, William Willett of England proposed changing the clocks to adjust to the longer days.

During the World War I, Germany heard of England’s proposal and instituted daylight saving time to save energy. The United States and England followed suit. Although unpopular among farmers, Congress imposed daylight saving time for seven months during World War I and year-round for three and a half years during World War II.

Afterward, federal law did not require daylight saving time to be enforced. Nor was a specific starting and ending date adopted; state and local jurisdictions had free reign. At one point, Iowa had 23 time zones. One bus ride from Ohio to West Virginia only spanned 35 miles, but a traveler had to change his watch seven times.

By 1967, 100 million Americans observed daylight saving time. That year, Congress passed the Uniform Time Act, establishing one pattern for daylight saving time--beginning the last week of April and ending the last week in October--for anyone who wished to observe it. State governments still had and have the right to adopt it or opt out. In 1986, Reagan added another three weeks to daylight saving time, a change that has remained in effect until this year.

Besides added sunlight during the evening, daylight saving time has other benefits--from saving energy to saving lives, some studies say. Research conducted by the Department of Transportation in the 1970s showed a 1 percent decrease in energy use per day after daylight saving time begins.

The study also showed that daylight saving time prevents deaths and injuries from traffic accidents. According to the study, as posted on the Web site of the California Energy Commission, most traffic accidents occur during the evening commute. With an extra hour of sunlight, an estimated 50 lives were saved, 2,000 injuries were prevented and a total of $28 million was saved in traffic accident costs in March and April.

But not everyone is pleased with the change.

Some critics charge that the number of accidents during the morning commute rises when the clocks move ahead. Also, many worry about children, particularly in rural areas, traveling to school in the dark during the morning.

Tom Buis, president of the National Farmers Union, said that while daylight saving time may not be as controversial as in the past, children's safety remains a concern.

“Rural students generally have to go greater distances," he said. "When it’s still dark like that, it’s more uncomfortable for people.”

As for the farmers, Buis says crop farmers now have artificial lights to work under and their farming depends more on soil conditions and the weather rather than the clock. Dairy and livestock farmers, however, have to adjust their schedules with the time change.

The California Energy Commission has concluded that extending daylight saving time decreases the amount of peak electricity use at 7 p.m. in March by 3 percent, according to Bob Aldrich, a commission consultant. He says the data only apply to California since electricity use differs by geographic location.

There are easier ways to save energy, experts say. While changing your clocks, Aldrich recommends changing all light bulbs to compact florescent ones.

“If everyone did that," he said, "it would save more energy than daylight saving time.”

E-mail: gcm2107@columbia.edu