If you think of the switch to daylight saving time at all, you probably just consider it an annoyance that causes you to lose some sleep or be late for lunch because you forgot to reset the clock in your living room. But when scientists carefully look at the consequences of setting the clocks ahead an hour each year, they discover a host of scary facts.
Why daylight saving time is a secret killer
The first of those is the cost of the change in human lives. Yes, that’s right. Daylight saving time seems like a tiny thing, but according to rigorous studies, it’s actually a killer. As sleep researcher Matthew Walker explains in his book Why We Sleep, losing just an hour of sleep stresses the cardiovascular system, which can tip some folks with heart issues over the edge. That’s why the number of heart attacks tick up significantly the day after we set the clocks ahead.
A similar trend appears when scientists look at accident statistics. One lost hour doesn’t seem enough to cause drowsy driving, but if that were really the case, why then does the number of traffic accidents shoot up the day after daylight saving time begins in both the northern and southern hemispheres? Deadly industrial accidents also rise sharply. Experts are convinced that lost hour of sleep is far more consequential than most of us imagine.
A $434 million problem
The statistics on Daylight Saving Time-related deaths are the most alarming, but the ones on the economic cost of the switch are pretty startling too. Writing on The Conversation blog, University of Oregon organizational psychologist David Wagner explains how internet searches for distracting content rise somewhere between three and six percent the Monday following the start of daylight saving time, presumably because sleepy employees are struggling to get down to work.
That sounds like a modest amount, but when you tot up the economic cost of all that fuzzy thinking and cat videos, and then add to that the cost of all the additional heart attacks, the numbers are surprisingly high. “Economists estimate that the annual spring time change costs the American economy $434 million each year,” declares Wagner.
And that’s not even likely a complete accounting of the costs. In another study, Wagner and his colleagues tested volunteers’ ability to make tough ethical decisions the day after the clocks are set ahead, and found people were less thoughtful about moral issues after losing that hour of sleep. Other researchers have shown that judges hand down sentences that are five percent longer following the start of daylight saving time.
The switch, in other words, doesn’t just increase your chance of death and make us all a little poorer, it also makes us all a little less kind and ethical too.
Time to stop changing the clocks?
Can society bear these costs? Sure, probably. But as Wagner points out, we could also fix the problem incredibly easily: “Although the negative outcomes are varied, the singular solution seems quite simple: Rather than change the clocks, we should change public policy.” Just abolish daylight saving.
That’s probably not on the cards anytime soon though, but if you’re personally concerned about how setting the clocks ahead might affect your own health or decision making, you can try to get ahead of the change by gradually acclimatizing to the new schedule in the days leading up to the switch (see yesterday’s blog post).