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Ask the Mental Health Expert Archives 2001-2004

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Daylight Savings Time

Q. How does daylight savings time effect our lives mentally, physically and socially?

A. Daylight Saving Time (DST)-originally conceived by Benjamin Franklin-is nicely reviewed by Martha Brockenbrough in a recent essay (http://encarta.msn.com/column/daylightsavingtime.asp). Citing studies by the U.S. Department of Transportation, Brockenbrough notes that while DST does not really save daylight, it does help save energy and lives, as well as cut down on crime. For example, when people's waking hours correspond with daylight hours, they are involved in fewer traffic accidents and are less likely to be out after dark, when many crimes occur.

However, not all data support this rosy scenario. One study (Varughese & Allen, 2001) actually found an increase in fatal traffic accidents in the U.S. associated with both the change to and from DST; i.e., on the Monday immediately following the spring shift to DST, as well as on the Sunday of the fall shift from DST. The authors attribute the first effect to loss of sleep, and the second to people staying out later and perhaps drinking. It's harder to find data on the mental and social implications of DST. To cite one colleague (who also happens to be my wife), "DST is good and bad. It's bad at first, when you are trying to adjust to losing an hour of sleep, but it's good for your mood when you are exposed to more daylight."

Indeed, it may be that some people with winter-type seasonal affective disorder are helped by the shift to DST, though I have not seen studies showing this to be the case. (SAD sufferers do usually show an upswing in their mood as winter recedes and spring begins, corresponding with an increase in the actual amount of ambient light). Finally, for a more jaundiced view of DST, Brockenbrough quotes the Canadian author Robertson Davies, in "The Diary of Samuel Marchbanks": "I object to being told that I am saving daylight when my reason tells me that I am doing nothing of the kind. At the back of the Daylight Saving scheme, I detect the bony, blue-fingered hand of Puritanism, eager to push people into bed earlier, and get them up earlier, to make them healthy, wealthy, and wise in spite of themselves."

May 2001

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