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Senate votes to make daylight saving time permanent, but some experts wonder if standard time would be best

 (Molly Quinn / The Spokesman-Review)
(Molly Quinn / The Spokesman-Review)
By Albert James The Spokesman-Review

Just a few days after Americans changed their clocks to daylight saving time, the U.S. Senate voted last week to make that switch one of the last times clocks would spring forward.

Sleep researchers, like those at Washington State University’s Sleep and Performance Research Center, generally agree that the public would benefit from not having to adjust to twice-a-year time changes. But the debate is far from settled about which is better: year-round standard time or year-round daylight time, which comes with later sunrises and sunsets.

The “Sunshine Protection Act,” which passed the Senate unanimously and without debate on Tuesday, would make daylight saving time permanent. If approved by the House and signed by President Joe Biden, it would become effective in 2023, making the switch to daylight time in March next year the last time switch.

“No more dark afternoons in the winter,” Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., said after the bill’s passage. “No more losing an hour of sleep every spring. We want more sunshine during our most productive waking hours.”

Kimberly Honn, associate professor and sleep researcher at WSU, said time changes affect different parts of the body in different ways. While the human gut is one of the first systems to adjust, the circadian clock is “slow to adapt” and tries to hold on to its previous rhythm, she said.

Honn said losing an hour of sleep with the switch to daylight time can have a “profound impact,” and it can take about a week for people to adjust.

“Right after the time change in March, there’s an uptick in the days immediately following that of medical issues like heart attack and stroke,” Honn told The Spokesman-Review. “There’s also high rates that studies have found of things like medical errors in hospitals, there’s more traffic accidents and things like that.”

There is some debate, however, about whether permanent daylight time or permanent standard time is the best option.

Honn said the majority of sleep researchers favor permanent standard time. They argue that with shifting clocks later in the winter, people wouldn’t get the morning sunlight exposure that helps entrain the circadian rhythm, she said.

“The biological clock in your brain is really sensitive to light – that’s one of the best ways to keep it on track, keep it scheduled,” Honn said. “Not having that bright light in the morning can kind of cause your internal clock to start shifting.”

The argument about morning sunlight, however, makes some assumptions about sources of light and how people use natural daylight exposure, she said.

Advocates for permanent daylight time, Honn said, argue more daylight in the evenings provides more time for recreation and activity while potentially decreasing crime. Those arguments are based on how daylight time is used in the summer and may not apply the same in the winter, though, she said.

State and federal governments have explored permanent daylight time over the past few years. Under federal law, states cannot observe daylight time outside the designated March to November period.

The nation already experimented with moving to daylight time year round when Congress approved a two-year trial in December 1973, according to Time. But the experiment proved unpopular and Congress reversed course eight months later, moving back to standard time in the fall of 1974.

Washington is one of many states waiting for changes to the law to observe daylight time year-round. State Rep. Marcus Riccelli, D-Spokane, sponsored the 2019 law that will shift Washington to permanent daylight time if allowed by the federal government. He said the measure “was one of the things, if not the thing, that was most commented on” of anything that came out of the Legislature that year. People were strongly interested in permanent daylight time, he said, and it “just makes more sense.”

“We’re already on daylight saving time eight months of the year, so then the switch is really for the four months,” Riccelli said. “Pacific Standard Time would mean that we’re switching something that we’re on four months of the year and filling in the rest of the year.”

States, however, can completely opt out of observing daylight time without federal approval and permanently stay on standard time – according to the U.S. Department of Transportation, Hawaii, parts of Arizona and some U.S. territories do not observe daylight time.

In the 2022 legislative session, a proposal would have added Washington to that list.

Bill sponsor Sen. Jim Honeyford, R-Sunnyside, said the state should stop switching times and stay put until Congress took action. The bill never made it out of committee.

Honn said an ideal option would be to have a gradual time change that fosters a natural adjustment – as opposed to a sudden jump of an hour – but that is just not feasible. While there are many considerations in deciding which time option to stick with permanently, she said the current back and forth is “hard on people” and “bad for safety and health.”

“The victory is taking out that twice yearly change,” Honn said. “But there’s still a lot of debate on which way to go for the year round.”

Leaders in the U.S. House say the Senate’s bill will be considered, but unlike in the Senate, the idea will be debated.

Rep. Frank Pallone Jr., D-N.J., who leads the House Energy and Commerce Committee, said it could be months before the House takes action on the idea, according to the Washington Post.

“There isn’t a consensus, in my opinion, in the House, or even generally at this point, about whether we should have standard versus daylight saving as the permanent time,” Pallone told the Post.

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