April Wouldn't Be Nearly So Cruel, Says Lobbyist James Benfield, If Only We Had More Daylight Saving

updated 05/05/1986 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/05/1986 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Every spring on the last weekend in April, the vast majority of sun-loving Americans yields to the dictates of daylight saving time, advancing the hands of their clocks, relinquishing an hour of sleep and thinking little more about it. James C. Benfield is different; he thinks about it a lot. A lobbyist for the Washington, D.C. firm of Bracy Williams & Co., Benfield, 42, is executive director of the Daylight Saving Time Coalition, an organization dedicated to the proposition that "saving" time is a good thing that we can't get too much of. Currently, the coalition is pushing for passage of a bill, scheduled for congressional action this month, that would give Americans an extra hour of evening daylight earlier in the spring and later in the fall. Benfield discussed the history and benefits of America's annual manipulation of time with correspondent Susan Schindehette.

Exactly how much more daylight does your coalition want to save?

We want seven months of daylight saving time a year instead of the current six. We want it to start on the first Sunday in April instead of the last, and end on the first Sunday in November instead of the last Sunday in October.

Why?

Because it would help a broad cross section of our economy. Man is a diurnal creature. He conducts most of his activities during daylight, and by using that daylight more efficiently, the members-of our coalition can add an estimated $4 or $5 billion a year to their retail sales.

Who is in your coalition?

Nurserymen who want people to have more daylight in the evening to work on their lawns and gardens; the barbecue industry, which would benefit from more daylight for cookouts; the fast-food industry, which wants people doing things like playing softball in the evening so that they'll drop by afterward for something quick to eat. We also represent amusement parks, outdoor attractions like the gift shop at Mount Rushmore and sporting-goods manufacturers. Plus the candymakers, who are eager to pick up that last week in October, which includes Halloween. They feel more daylight will make Halloween a safer holiday for more trick-or-treaters and thus more profitable for themselves.

Who first thought of daylight saving time?

Ben Franklin, when he was U.S. Minister to France in 1784, told French shopkeepers that if they opened their shops earlier and closed them earlier, they would save 96 million candles a year. He didn't actually advocate changing clocks, but he was on the right track, because he was suggesting more efficient use of daylight. The Germans were the first to move the hands of their clocks forward, in 1916, to conserve fuel for the war effort. During World War I, the U.S. and Britain also tried it but dropped it later because it had become associated with the war.

When was it revived?

In 1942 year-round daylight saving time went into effect in the U.S. It was known as War Time and was adopted to conserve energy and increase productivity by allowing workers to spend time in their victory gardens. It lasted until September 1945. After that, for more than 20 years it was left up to the individual states, or even counties, to decide whether to observe standard or daylight time.

It must have been confusing.

It was. As recently as 1966 a passenger would travel through seven different time zones on a 35-mile trip between Steubenville, Ohio and Moundsville, W.Va.

You say that the extension of daylight saving time would benefit the handicapped. How?

About 400,000 Americans suffer from some form of degenerative retinal disease, and in many cases one of the major symptoms is night blindness. When the sun sets, they can't be out driving a car. It's difficult for them to do their shopping at 5:30 a.m., when the sun rises in April. They'd much rather have the freedom to shop after work.

What about the argument that extending daylight saving time will endanger children going to school on dark mornings?

Objections on this count are the result of the ill-advised experiment during the Arab oil embargo, when in 1974 we observed daylight saving time from early January through the end of October. The problem was that the darkest mornings of the year are in early January. From that time of the year until early April, we pick up about an hour and 40 minutes of daylight. Another way of looking at it is that the month of April under daylight saving time would be equivalent in sunrises and sunsets to the month of August, and nobody is complaining about dark mornings then.

In terms of public safety, are there any advantages to extending daylight saving time?

The Department of Transportation says that lives would be saved because more after-work driving, when people are more likely to be fatigued or to have had something to drink, would be done in daylight. Also, a 1974-75 study in the District of Columbia showed there was a reduction in street crime as a result of daylight saving time. Fast-food and convenience stores are particularly concerned about this because they believe that women are reluctant to shop in those places of business after dark. Hardee's did a study and found that lengthening DST would increase their sales by $880 per store per week during the period of extended light. This is a lot of money, and it would translate very quickly into jobs.

If extended daylight saving time is such a good idea, who opposes it?

Farmers, traditionally. They argue that if they start their chores around sunrise, daylight saving time pushes their workday into the evening. It's a logical complaint, but you have to weigh it against the potential benefits. Some of our proposals will help farmers. Department of Agriculture figures show that consumption of beef is heaviest in spring and summer, and the evidence leads you to believe that this is due mainly to outdoor barbecuing, which is done primarily in daylight.

Are there any other objections to changing our clocks twice a year?

In some parts of the country Christian fundamentalists argue that we shouldn't be playing around with "God's time." It's probably the hardest argument to combat. What can you say? In fact, the calibration of time—the assigning of numbers to it—is an invention of man. God certainly didn't do it.

What do other countries do about daylight saving time?

Western Europe is on DST generally from the last Sunday in March to the last Sunday in September. Great Britain starts at the same time, but continues it until the last Sunday in October. The Soviet Union is on "advanced time" year-round. China, which extends over 11 time zones, compared with four in the continental U.S., is all on the same time by government decree. Israel, primarily for religious reasons, is on what amounts to double daylight "wasting" time, about two hours behind the rest of their time zone. They've got sunrises at 3:30 or 4 in the morning and sunsets at 3:30 or 4 in the afternoon. That's done largely out of consideration for Orthodox Jews, who say their morning prayers before work and whose religion dictates they cannot pray before sunrise.

Why hasn't Congress passed the bill to extend daylight saving time in the U.S.?

The bill did pass the House of Representatives by an 83-vote margin last October, so they're not opposed to it. The problem is that it has been bottled up in the Senate Commerce Committee, dominated by Senators from states on the western edges of their respective time zones—which enjoy more daylight in the evening even without saving time—and which has no members from New England, California or Florida, where support for the bill is strongest.

What makes you think you can win the battle now?

This is the first time the business community has ever taken a hard look to see how the use of daylight affects its pocketbook. They're saying, "Wow, this is a way we can increase sales without spending money!" It's just there for the taking—like picking up loose change.

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