Experts Sound Alarm on Crusade to Change New York’s Time Zone

ALBANY (CN) — A New York lawmaker is kicking off 2020 by proposing the Empire State switch time zones. 

A bill introduced Wednesday by state Senator James Skoufis lays out a plan to have New York observe Atlantic Time so that winter sunsets occur an hour later — 5:30 p.m. instead of 4:30, for example. 

“Today is the ‘shortest day’ of the year with sunset at 4:30pm,” Skoufis tweeted on Dec. 21. “This is crazy. And it doesn’t have to be. Let’s pass my permanent Daylight Saving Time bill next year so that we get an extra hour of sun when it counts: while we’re awake.”

New York state Senator James Skouflis. (Image courtesy of nysenate.gov via CNS)

Skoufis encountered pushback on that Twitter post, with multiple users imploring him to look at science that indicates year-round Daylight Saving Time is actually a bad idea. 

One catch is that Skoufis’ plan would also push sunrise back an hour, which critics say could put children in danger as they wait for the school bus in the dark. 

Jess Gulotta, a spokeswoman for Skoufis, said the switch back and forth from Daylight Saving Time causes productivity losses, which are compounded by the state’s post in the Eastern Time Zone. Switching to Atlantic Time would mean no more sunsets before 5 p.m. in the winter, she said. Skoufis took this route rather than proposing a permanent switch to Daylight Savings Time because a time-zone shift can be approved by the U.S. Department of Transportation, rather than an act of Congress. 

In a phone interview Tuesday, Gulotta said New York would not go forward with the switch unless joined by surrounding states like New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Connecticut, so as not to complicate business in the New York City metropolitan area for out-of-state commuters. 

One of Skoufis’ Twitter challengers is Travis Longcore, an adjunct professor at UCLA in the Institute of the Environment and Sustainability who has sounded public health alarms about the bill.

“The important thing for setting your daily biological rhythms is being exposed to daylight soon after you wake up in the morning,” Longcore said in a phone interview this week.  

A doctor of geography, Longcore said humans waking up an hour or an hour and a half before sunrise could contribute to the public health problem of “social jetlag.”

“That is a chronic misalignment of your activity with the signal that tells your body that it’s daytime and you should get going,” he said. “And that results in a whole suite of bad things, including increased cancer risk.”

That cancer risk comes from stress on the body when the circadian clocks in our cells are out of sync with the sun, he said.  

Part of the problem is that science is still new, Longcore added. 

But as many arguments as there are for why people shouldn’t wake up in the darkness, Gulotta said there are others for why we should have more sun in the nighttime.

Longcore called the issue more nuanced. “It’s going to take a decade for people to understand that the chronic misalignment of our bodies to light and dark is every bit as significant as other things we’ve taken action on” to address public health, like smoking, he said. 

Michael Downing, the author of “Spring Forward: The Annual Madness of Daylight Saving Time,” noted that he has not read Skoufis’ proposal but generally opposes the idea. 

“There are many reasons to question the sagacity of these proposals … including the absurdly late sunrise times in December and January — 8:30 to 9:00 a.m., or later — for those unlucky residents of the western reaches of these newly designated time zones,” Downing wrote in an email. 

“And what if, come spring, people’s fingers get itchy, because they feel they have a right to more evening sunlight hours as good weather approaches?”

Longcore said he considers the traffic-accident dilemma to be a separate issue that could be addressed with better streetlights. 

Skoufis, a Democrat, became the youngest member of the New York Assembly when he first took office in 2013 at age 24. Experts note that the time-zone issue is one of few that does not fall along political lines, with Democrats and Republicans on both sides of the debate. 

David Prerau, the author of “Seize the Daylight: The Curious and Contentious Story of Daylight Saving Time,” emphasized that the current system may not be perfect but makes the best of the situation. 

Proposing a simpler plan, Prerau pointed out that many people simply don’t prepare for the loss of sleep that comes with switching times. 

“We need a public service campaign every year telling people they’re going to lose an hour of sleep,”  said Prerau, whose doctorate degree is in statistics. “That alone might be enough to minimize the negative effects.”

Gulotta didn’t buy that.

“People are aware that they’re going to lose an hour; they know it already,” she said in a phone interview. 

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