Time for change

Time is a fascinating concept. Trying to imagine reality without the construct of time is almost impossible; it’s something we’re absolutely prisoner to. And yet we know that time can run at different speeds depending on the position you observe it from, according to the theory of relativity. Time is an integral, yet bewildering concept.

We can’t do without time, but we have learnt to manage it in a commanding way. There is no fundamental reason, for example, why there are 24 hours in a day other than that somebody decided it. I don’t mean that there could be 25 hours in a day – that’s nonsense. But it’s certainly true there could be 37 of something else in a day. The something else would just have to be a unit of time equal to precisely 64.8% of a regular hour.

Also in our hands to decide is the time when the sun rises. Again, we have no control over when this happens in absolute terms, but we can decide what time we call it. The relative time that the sun rises varies, of course, with the time of year, but we keep some control over it, in that we change from Greenwich Mean Time (GMT) to GMT+1 – which we call British Summer Time (BST) – on the last Sunday of March each year.

There has been a continuous murmuring of descent over the past few years when it comes to the GMT/BST arrangements because these schedules poorly reflect the time most of us are up and about. In summer it gets light at 05.55 (on average), but typically we get up at 07.30 and don’t start work until, say, 09.00. The case is similar, but less pronounced in the winter.

One way to rectify this discrepancy between our waking hours and the times when it’s daylight would be to set the time so that our day starts when it gets light, instead of some hours later. This would give us all more hours of sunshine later in the evening when we are awake to enjoy it.

A 2007 study by Cambridge University investigated whether moving both Winter and Summer times forward by one hour would be useful. This would mean the time in Winter would be GMT+1 (the same as current BST) and in Summer GMT+2. This scheme is known as Single/Double Summer Time (SDST). The study identifies a raft of benefits which would arise from the changes. Just imagine the extra revenue which would be generated from additional hours of light-fuelled sight-seeing and tourism for example. Savings on energy would increase too, as there would be fewer hours with the lights switched on.

These advantages seem hardly disputable, but two some conclusions of the study have been widely questioned – in my view irrationally. The first conclusion of the report which is often challenged is that under SDST there would be fewer road accidents. In the winter SDST would mean darker mornings, and some argue that this would endanger children on their way to school. This is a silly suggestion; clearly the evening rush hour is the more important one to keep light as it is longer and it is then that children are more likely to wander around with their friends while walking home; in the mornings children walk directly to school. There might be a small increase in accidents in the morning as a result of the changes, but the reduction in afternoon accidents would outweigh it.

The second protest is on behalf of those – like farm workers and residents in the far North of Scotland – for whom the changes would – it is true – have a more pronounced effect on their early morning routine. The solution here is simple: the small minority of those for whom the changes would be inconvenient could simply adjust their working hours so that they are kept effectively the same, even though they are officially called an hour later. Schools for example could maintain the exact same relative start time, it’s just that their day would start at an hour known as 09.30 rather than 08.30.

The unwillingness of some to accept the logic of these changes speaks of an unattractive and – I would go further – dangerous entrenchment in past values. In order to make a success of the next few challenging decades we must be able not just to make a careful analysis of the facts concerning a given question, but to have the fortitude to put our ideas into practice. Especially when the conclusions are, as in this case, as clear as day.

NB. This article originally appeared as an editorial for Epigram.

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One Response to Time for change

  1. cthowgego says:

    why don’t we just change/make more flexible opening hours and school/work hours rather than change the entire time zone?

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