PUBLISHED Dec. 22, 2022, at 6:00 AM

Can You Make Winter Less Dark?

Daylight saving time has problems. But is anything else really better?

If you live in the Northern Hemisphere, there’s a decent chance that it’s dark outside as you’re reading this. Bleak midwinter, indeed. The darkest part of the year is preceded by the switch to standard time, which sacrifices the evening sun in favor of earlier dawns. The results can feel dismally dim.

That — plus the fact that the majority of Americans dislike changing clocks, to begin with — has led to efforts to eliminate standard time … and counterefforts to eliminate daylight saving time. Can either option squeeze more day out of the light we do have? Try your hand at optimizing daylight all year long:

What should we do with DST?
What to do with DST?
Are sunrises or sunsets more important?
Sunrises or sunsets?
Percent of days with early sunrises and late sunsets

Unfortunately, no solution will make every American happy. Even if you’ve found a combination that satisfies your personal preferences, you may have noticed that those preferences could negatively impact other parts of the country. And advocates for changing the system we currently have — whether for or against DST — feel strongly that their personal preference is the best.

Permanent DST would bring brighter evenings but much darker mornings

Average percent of days in a year with sunrises before 7:30 a.m., sunsets after 5:30 p.m. and both, for three clock-changing scenarios, across all U.S. counties

clock setting earlier sunrises later sunsets both
Keep everything as is 83% 80% 69%
Always use standard time 90 76 72
Always use daylight saving time 60 98 60

Sunrise and sunset times were calculated for 2022, based on the geographic center of each county. Sunrise is defined as when the top edge of the sun appears on the horizon; sunset is defined as when the sun disappears below the horizon and evening civil twilight (when the sun’s geometric center is 6 degrees below the horizon) starts. Since Arizona does not observe daylight saving time and the Navajo Nation does, the portion of the Navajo Nation within Arizona was considered its own “county”; the Navajo Nation was then carved out of any Arizona county it intersects with. Sunrise and sunset times in counties that cross multiple time zones were calculated separately for each county’s area within each time zone.

Sources: U.S. Census Bureau, U.S. Department of Transportation, SunCalc

Those who want to permanently stay on standard time (the time we’re on from November to March) say it’s preferential to permanent daylight saving time because standard time more closely aligns the clocks with our natural circadian rhythm, which is dictated by light exposure. Such a change would be better for our health. For instance, daylight saving time has been associated with a host of negative health effects including worse sleep and cardiovascular disease, and permanent daylight saving time could lead to higher rates of depression — prompting groups like the American Academy of Sleep Medicine to endorse permanent standard time instead. “The problem is that we don’t adapt. Our bodies align to the sun,” said Dr. Karin Johnson, a sleep medicine specialist and a professor of neurology at the University of Massachusetts Chan Medical School.

Advocates for permanent daylight saving time, however, argue that Americans live by the clock, not the sun, and that brighter evenings fit with how we live in the real world. Perhaps that’s why in the past five years 19 states have passed a bill or resolution that would implement year-round daylight saving time. A bill that passed the Senate in March would also have made it permanent, but the measure has virtually no chance of being taken up by the House before the next Congress is seated.

A photo illustration using archival imagery related to daylight saving time

photo illustration by dan dao / getty images

There’s some evidence that people are more likely to shop or be active after work if it’s still light out. But the arguments aren’t just economic, said Steve Calandrillo, a professor at the University of Washington School of Law. With more people out and about in the evening hours, the chances for traffic accidents go up when the sun sets earlier. He pointed to a study from 2004, which found that switching to permanent daylight saving time could reduce pedestrian fatalities by 13 percent and motor-vehicle fatalities by 3 percent during morning and evening hours.1Specifically, between 5 a.m. and 10 a.m. and between 4 p.m. and 9 p.m. Other studies suggest more evening daylight could help prevent street crime.

The problem is that both standard time and daylight saving time are fictions. Daylight saving time, which was introduced as a temporary measure for maximizing usable daylight during World War I, tends to get a bad rap for its artificiality, but standard time isn’t exactly natural either. According to Michael O’Malley, a professor of history at George Mason University and the author of “Keeping Watch: A History of American Time,” standard time was introduced in the late 19th century by railroad companies who wanted to standardize their timetables. Not everyone was happy about it. The city of Cincinnati, for example, initially continued to set its clocks to “Cincinnati time,” which was twenty-two minutes different from standard time. “Their argument was, ‘Noon is when the sun is overhead, not when the Pennsylvania Railroad says it’s noon,’” O’Malley said. Our current system of springing forward and falling back is a kludge designed to make everyone happy — which, of course, it fails at.

That’s the fundamental problem with trying to restructure time to fit our schedules. Whether it’s permanent standard time or daylight saving time, any attempt to standardize the clocks will be dislocating for someone. O’Malley’s dream is that the country could somehow return to solutions from before the 20th century, when local communities responded to changes in daylight by shifting their own schedules to fit the season. That could mean schools might open or close earlier or later depending on when the sun rose and set in a specific place, he said. Adapting to seasonal darkness — and even finding joy in the coziness of the depths of winter — could mean living our lives differently depending on the local hours of light in the day. Slowing down, maximizing activity in sunlight hours and seeking warmth and comfort are ways that people have been coping with the long, dark, cold nights for centuries.

But the promise of daylight saving time — that we can somehow wring more productive hours of brightness out of the day — has always been a false one. No matter how we manipulate the clocks, this will always be a dark time of year. By trying to escape that reality, we may just end up making ourselves more unhappy.