“Why do we keep doing this to ourselves?” Donna Bailey, a Democratic state representative in Maine and crusader against anachronistic and dangerous institutions, asked the Wall Street Journal (paywall). It’s an excellent question.
Earlier this year, Bailey sponsored a bill that would move Maine to the Atlantic Time Zone, an hour ahead of its current position in the Eastern Time Zone, and no longer observe Daylight Saving Time. The bill passed both chambers of the Maine state legislature. But the Senate added a provision that Maine voters must approve the change in a referendum, and the referendum could only be triggered by neighboring Massachusetts and New Hampshire changing their time, too. Since neither of those states had immediate plans to change their time zones, the move seemed doomed.
But now there is hope. Massachusetts is considering a permanent change in its time zone. A commission is studying the issue was prompted by public health advocate Tom Emswiler. He argues that a shift to Atlantic Time would boost the economy by encouraging college students to stay in Massachusetts, instead of moving to sunnier places like New York City. If the commission votes to recommend the change next week, the report will move to lawmakers and maybe result in legislation. It is a long shot, to be sure. If Massachusetts moves to Atlantic Time, Maine probably will too, and that will pressure New Hampshire to follow.
The Eastern Time Zone spans Maine to Michigan. Parts of eastern New England are dark many waking hours of the day, with the sun setting before 4pm in winter. But if parts of New England move to Atlantic Time, the continental United States will go from four to five time zones. That’s a much bigger problem than early sunsets in eastern New England.
Time’s main purpose is to facilitate economic coordination, so the more time zones there are, the more scope there is for confusion. Maine’s chamber of commerce opposes the time-zone bill, since modern business demands greater economic integration with faraway places. Maine’s lawmakers understood they couldn’t go at it alone, but three states isn’t an adequate economic block anymore.
A better part of these proposals is the ditching of Daylight Saving Time. There are well-documented costs of changing clocks each year, including car accidents and heightened stress. Not every country, or even state, observes twice-yearly time changes, and those that do, change clocks on different days. It creates a semi-annual state of chaos.
If the purpose of time is indeed coordination, there should be fewer time zones and no time changes. I have proposed moving the continental United States to two time zones and ending seasonal time changes. Granted, this would mean even more dark hours in Maine, since it would be on the same time zone as Texas. But the world already de facto operates on fewer time zones. Plenty of conference calls feature people in London, New York, and San Francisco without too much trouble. And there’s evidence that people adapt their schedules to TV, not the sun.