written for The New York Times

MARGARET DEEGAN SLYWKA knows painfully well what happened 33 years ago, the last time the clocks changed to daylight saving time in the winter. Then a 14-year-old sophomore living in Seymour, Conn., she was hit by a car while walking to high school on Jan. 7, 1974 — the day after President Nixon ordered that clocks be moved ahead an hour — and she ended up in a coma for two weeks and a body cast for months.
Ms. Slywka (pronounced sa-LEW-ka), now 48 and living in Middlebury, recovered but says that the only details of the accident that she can recall are those that others have told her. ”I can’t even remember getting up that morning,” she said.
Accidents like hers led to a lot of hand-wringing in the mid-1970s, and were a big reason the experiment in winter daylight saving time, a response to the OPEC oil embargo, ended the next year. But starting today, the nation is trying again, this time much later in the winter but for similar reasons: to cut crime, traffic fatalities and electricity.
A little-noticed provision of the federal Energy Policy Act of 2005 extended daylight saving time by four weeks this year. Clocks turn ahead an hour this morning instead of on the first Sunday in April and back an hour on Nov. 4 instead of on the last Sunday in October.
And while Congress will wait to see the effect on energy consumption before making the change permanent, many people are predicting disruptions and surprises at ”springing ahead” before the start of spring.
In mid-March, people are accustomed to seeing the sun rise between 6:15 and 6:30 a.m. But starting today, the sun won’t rise until after 7 a.m. for the next nine days or so. For example, in the suburban Connecticut town of Darien, sunrise will be at 7:11 a.m. tomorrow and will move gradually earlier until it occurs at 6:58 a.m. on March 20.
Last year, on the first day of daylight saving time, April 2, the sun rose at about 6:36 a.m. in Darien. This year’s change means that people will face about 35 minutes more darkness on the first morning of daylight saving.
And that will bother many people, said Martin C. Moore-Ede, the chief executive of Circadian Technologies, a consulting firm in Massachusetts that specializes in productivity and body rhythms.
”There is credible evidence that the move to daylight saving time upsets human circadian rhythms, or the inner clock apparently keyed somewhat to the sun,” he said.
Dr. Moore-Ede, a former professor at Harvard Medical School, cited four studies from the 1980s to the late 1990s that showed an increase in automobile accidents the week after the start of daylight saving.
He said that the sudden change made it harder to adapt to darkened mornings than in late fall and early winter, when the changes in light are more gradual.
”I’m going to make an outrageous prediction: You’re going to have an increased spike in traffic accidents,” he said.
But with the sun now setting at almost 7 p.m., the evening commute — more concentrated, hence, more dangerous than the morning’s — should be safer. ”The darker mornings are more dangerous than lighter mornings — definitely that’s true,” said David Prerau, the author of ”Seize the Daylight: The Curious and Contentious Story of Daylight Saving Time,” who consulted with Congress on the 2005 energy bill. ”However, studies have shown that the net effect even for schoolchildren is positive. Schoolchildren are involved in traffic accidents at 6 o’clock in the evening, as well. There will be a net lowering of accidents and fatalities.”
Once they get to school, however, teenagers, whose biological clocks tend to skew to late nights, will feel more tired, Dr. Moore-Ede said. ”You end up with a bunch of sleep-deprived teenagers who are then less able to think clearly, absorb their lessons and do well in their school work.”
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About This Article

This appeared in The New York Times on March 11, 2007, right after the United States returned to Daylight Saving Times in March for the first time since the energy crisis of the 1970s.

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