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Is It Daylight Saving Time Already?

You bet. But if it seems earlier than usual, that's because it is. Why—and could its early arrival cause techno glitches on the order of Y2K?
clock people hands



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WASHINGTON, D.C.—So much for "spring forward," given that this year Daylight Saving Time kicks in while it's still, well, winter. So what's up with that? Simple: Congress extended Daylight Saving Time by a month, touting the move as a way to save energy, reduce traffic accidents, and, perhaps most important, make Halloween a special and safer treat by allowing kids to go door-to-door while it's still light out.

"The beauty of Daylight Saving Time is that it just makes everyone feel sunnier," Rep. Edward Markey, D-Mass., said when the measure passed, moving the start date of Daylight Saving Time up three weeks to the second Sunday in March and its end back a week to the first Sunday in November.

Think that's early? If bill cosponsors Markey and Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich., had their druthers, they would have extended Daylight Saving Time—which provides an extra hour of light in the evening when people are still awake as opposed to early in the morning when most are still snoozing—by two months. But the U.S. airlines balked, complaining that it would be pricey and put them at a competitive disadvantage with international carriers because of the tight allocation of take off and landing time slots at major airports abroad.

Farmers, who don't cotton to doing their morning chores in the dark, were none too pleased, either (though they didn't grumble too much, because automation has erased many of their reasons for resisting earlier attempts to move up the start time). And so, Congress passed this compromise, which takes effect at 2 a.m. on Sunday, March 11 (instead of on April 4) and ends on Nov. 4 (instead of on Oct. 28) this year.

There was little hoopla when the bill passed as a tiny piece of the giant 2005 Energy Act. But two years later, as the effective date fast approached, there were suddenly stories predicting that this would be a potential technological nightmare of Y2K proportions.

Reality bytes: But don't count on it. As Markey pointed out at a press conference here this week, corporations and consumers have had two years to prepare for and adjust to the idea. The information and technology world has programmed various software "patches'' that can be downloaded onto computers and mobile devices to bring internal clocks into sync, and even the reluctant airline industry says it has resolved potential conflicts and is ready to go.

"I don't think there will be huge chaos. But there may be a lot of fairly minor glitches, which could be potentially annoying but will be forgotten within a few days," says Kevin Crowston, professor of information studies at Syracuse University. "As far as I can tell, it's going to primarily be little cosmetic things like the time prints out wrong for one hour for three weeks. In most people's lives, the clock is important, but it certainly isn't routinely life or death" unless, he notes, you're, say, an airline or train operator and have to be on an exact schedule.

"For large companies, this was kind of a hassle and they spent time to make sure it would come off smoothly," he says. "The biggest inconvenience for consumers is that most people will have to go around changing their alarm clock and clocks in their appliances, because the fact is that every appliance has a clock built into these days. Does my microwave really need to know what time it is? Hypothetically yes, but practically no. ... [The change] will be that scale of annoyance."

Crowston says that most computers, cell phones and the like will probably be automatically updated; if not, people can do so manually. Of course then, he says, the challenge will be for them to remember that they made the change when automatic updates come through three weeks later on the old schedule. "Be prepared to waking up in April and the clocks being wrong in the other direction," he says, "because they would have adjusted automatically the other way."

And therein lies the problem: People are so wired now that it seems they can't do anything without the aid of technology. Sure, the airlines and places like financial institutions had to plunk down some bucks to make sure everything would continue to run smoothly. But is one hour, a month longer, really that big a deal—especially given the potential benefits?

No problem. The reality is that we've adjusted to longer Daylight Saving times before and we will again, Markey says. To wit: Congress also extended it after the 1973 oil embargo. In 1974, Daylight Saving Time began on Jan. 6 and in 1975 on Feb. 23. During those two years, the U.S. Department of Transportation found that extending Daylight Saving Time saved the equivalent of 10,000 barrels of oil a day. After those two years, however, the start date reverted back to the last Sunday in April (mostly because farmers weren't keen on the extended schedule).

In 1985, Daylight Saving Time was again pushed up because of oil woes, this time by three weeks. A year later, Congress passed a law that permanently shifted the start date of Daylight Saving Time to the first Sunday in April; the end date remained the last Sunday in October.

"Some people have said that this change in Daylight Saving Time will be like a mini version of the Y2K problem. I believe those people are right—just as, after all the hype, Y2K turned out to be a 'non-problem,' Daylight Saving Time is likely to end up being a 'mini-non-problem," Markey said. "The reason for that is that the technology community has been busy making the software changes needed to ensure that clocks move to the right time."

The big question is: Will the change be worth it? Critics grump not, that more people will be driving around during the extra daylight hours and staying out later, using even more electricity. What's more, they complain, children will have to go to school in the dark (no matter that they already do in some places).

Energy savings: According to the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy (ACEEE), by 2020 the extension has the potential to cumulatively save consumers over $4.4 billion, eliminate the need to build more than three medium-sized (300-megawatt) coal-fired power plants, reduce natural gas consumption by 279 billion cubic feet, and prevent 10.8 million metric tons of the carbon emissions that lead to global warming.

"These savings come about because people consume less electricity in the evening if it's still light, and that cuts electricity use during peak demand in the early evening hours," Markey said. "It almost seems too good to be true that we could realize such benefits from such a small change. But it really works." Another plus, he said, is that research by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety shows that extending Daylight Saving Time could "help prevent pedestrian deaths and injuries, because adding an hour of light to the afternoon increases the visibility of both vehicles and pedestrians."

Some studies dispute the energy savings would be as great. A recent analysis by the California Energy Commission, for instance, concluded that the change would shift&rather than reduce—electricity use to off peak hour. The report said that electricity use could dip by 0.5 percent—or less. A shift to off peak electricity use still has the advantage of lowering the capacity requirements for utilities, but it's questionable whether the savings would be as much as the ACEEE estimates.

The bottom line: If the switch doesn't work, there's an escape hatch in the law that gives Congress the option to go back in time, so to speak, to the way we were. But for now, Daylight Saving Time is starting early. So come 2 a.m. March 11, hopefully you turned your clock ahead an hour. Or, even better, you lost the hour before you hit the hay the night before so that when you woke up, you weren't surprised—or late.

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