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On the Year’s Shortest Day, We Ponder: Should Chicago Switch to Eastern Time?

You can thank our position within the time zone for that early-afternoon sunset. Boston is ready to make the change—but Indiana wants to do the exact opposite.

Switching time zones would mean kids would walk to school in darkness during winter months.   Photo: Gary Middendorf-Daily Southtown

It’s 4:22 p.m. and the sun is setting. Welcome to Chicago.

There’s not much we can do about it. At a latitude of about 42 degrees north, the sun just sinks a lot earlier than it does in places closer to the equator—on the shortest day of the year, today, we’ll see just nine hours of daylight. But the reason the sun sets so early is in part due to Chicago’s far-eastern position in the central time zone and that we turn our clocks back every winter at the end of daylight savings.

Boston, located on the eastern edge of the eastern time zone, also feels this pain. In fact, Massachusetts recently approved a commission report recommending that the state (along with others in the region) switch to Atlantic time—one hour ahead—and do away with daylight saving time.

With the time zone border only a little over 40 miles from the Loop (as the crow flies), would it make sense for Chicago to make a similar change?

Let’s first consider the purpose of turning the clocks forward and backward. David Prerau, the author of Seize the Daylight: The Curious and Contentious Story of Daylight Saving Time, says in a phone interview that its goal is “to provide more light most of the year in the evening when people can use it [in nicer weather], but not make the mornings too dark in the winter.”

Without it, the sun would rise as late as 8:15 a.m. in the winter; because of it, we get those beautiful late sunsets on the lakefront in summer. But are those perks worth all those winter days when the sun has set before you’ve left the office?

Tom Emswiler, a health care professional in Boston, didn’t think so.

“Boston lies so far east in the eastern time zone that during standard time, our earliest nightfall of the year is a mere 27 minutes later than in Anchorage,” Emswiler wrote in a Boston Globe op-ed in 2014. “When it comes to daylight, we can do much better than Alaska.”

After receiving positive feedback on the op-ed, he called his state senator to propose the introduction of a bill, and eventually found himself appointed to the aforementioned Massachusetts commission. The commission came to a nearly unanimous affirmative decision on November 1 this year. (Massachusetts still needs to secure agreements from neighboring states and approval from the federal government to officially make a change.) The report cites extensive research showing that lighter evenings lead to fewer traffic accidents and that the twice-a-year daylight saving time change can cause harmful health effects, similar to those caused by jet lag.

“This is not something we’re trying to do drastically,” Emswiler tells Chicago. “We try to use a data-driven approach. It’s not just some whim of people who just want change for change’s sake.”

Some readers might remember an even larger-scale experiment that happened decades ago. To save electricity during the national energy crisis in 1973, Congress instituted two years of constant daylight saving time nationwide starting in 1974, Prerau says, adding that this was a wildly unpopular move because of the cold, dark winter mornings it created. It was cut short after just one year.

But many in Chicago’s next-door neighbor, Indiana, live in this reality already. Since most of the state is on the western edge of the eastern time zone, some Hoosiers get summer sunsets as late as 9:20 p.m., but send their children to school in the dark for a large chunk of the school year. This is basically what an eastern-time Chicago would look like.

The problem? Children have been hit and sometimes killed by cars during these low-visibility mornings, and there is actually a coalition in Indiana seeking to have its state uniformly adopt central time—exactly the opposite of what Massachusetts is trying to achieve. It’s unclear how much progress this coalition has made, and they could not be reached for comment.

There’s another way to ameliorate that problem: Emswiler says that if schools started at 8:30 a.m. or later, 15 minutes after sunrise on the darkest days of the year for an Atlantic-time Boston or eastern-time Chicago, people wouldn’t mind the morning darkness quite as much. (Bonus: The American Association of Pediatrics recommends starting school later to help combat widespread chronic sleep loss among middle- and high-school students.)

But the dark mornings also could be a mental health hazard. Michael Terman, a clinical psychology professor at Columbia University, wrote in his book Reset Your Inner Clock that Seasonal Affective Disorder is disproportionately common on the western edge of time zones. On the eastern side of each time zone, Terman wrote that the proportion of SAD cases is lower, dark evenings notwithstanding.

Prerau, who acted as a consultant to Congress on the 2007 law that extended daylight saving time to its current roughly eight-month period, says he is skeptical of the benefits of later winter sunsets, since many working adults wouldn’t notice it due to the nine-to-five office schedule.

“One thing daylight savings time does not do is manufacture an extra hour of daylight,” Prerau says. “All you can do is move it around to when you think is the best time of day to have it.”

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