More daylight, healthier children

The option of putting the clock forward one hour ahead of its current setting (to GMT plus one hour in the winter and GMT plus two hours in the summer) is now the subject of public debate. The Government is likely to soon reach a decision on this proposition originally made in 1988 following the publication of research showing that the advantages of such a change would far outweigh the disadvantages. In 1989, it was also the subject of a Home Office consultation paper in which the acronym SDST (Single/Double Summer Time) was used to refer to this particular change to the clock. Among its wide range of benefits identified for the general population is the particular improvement that it would bring for children by reducing road accidents among them, increasing their opportunities for outdoor activity, and enhancing their health and the quality of their lives.

Road injuries and security issues
The influence of daylight and darkness on the incidence of road crashes is due to the fact that these tend to be more severe when lighting conditions are poor. This is especially so for children who make more of their journeys on foot than do adults and are at greater risk of injury in the late afternoon than the early morning.

Putting the clock forward by one hour would mean more of their journeys to school would have to be made on dark winter mornings with a consequential increase in collisions at that time of day. But this outcome has to be seen in a wider context. First, taking account of weekends, holidays and half-terms, children go to school on only half the days of the year, and the two to three week Christmas holidays coincide with the period of the year with the shortest period of daylight in the mornings. Examination of ‘time budget’ diaries shows that children’s travel, involving journeys to friends’ homes, or for other leisure purposes, occupies nearly as much of their time as journeys to and from school, and that far more of it takes place in the late afternoon and early evening, in marked contrast to the morning and mid-afternoon peaks of school travel.

Second, analysis of the frequency of road crashes by hour of day and month of year shows that there are far more injuries among children in the mid- to late-afternoon on the return home from school or from leisure activities than on the journey to them in the morning. Not only is there more traffic on the streets at that time but all road users tend to be more careless as the day wears on. In fact, journeys to and from school account for only about one in nine of child fatalities on the roads. And twice as many occur on the journey from school as to school reflecting also both the effect of the increasing incidence with which children are escorted to school, often by car, and the more random and dispersed nature of their journey home.

Other analysis of ‘time budget’ use diaries shows that most children go to school between 8.15am and 9.00am and travel home between 3.30pm and 4.30pm during the term. If no change is made in these times following a switch to SDST, the proportion of time in the year that children would be making journeys to and from school in the dark would increase from 1 per cent to 3 per cent. However, children’s social and recreational journeys mostly take place in the afternoon and early evening, especially during non-school days. Under the present clock regime, a quarter of their weekday leisure travel, that is 11 minutes, takes place in the dark. With SDST, and again with no change in their patterns of activity stimulated by its adoption, this would fall to a weekday average of 8 minutes.

No doubt as a result of this, and taking into account road crashes on all seven days of the week, in the four winter months from November to February inclusive, there are nearly three times as many fatal and serious injuries among children in the hours from 3pm to 6pm as from 7am to 10am. It has been calculated that, in combination with the benefits of lighter winter afternoons, the increased visibility on the roads in the evenings on the other eight – lighter ‑ months of the year which would result from the adoption of SDST, would bring about a significant reduction in the number of injuries at that time of day, including about 140 deaths and serious injuries among children.

Another aspect is growing public concern about going out after dark. A recent PSI report has revealed that hardly any junior schoolchildren and only one in four secondary schoolchildren under the age of 16 is allowed out by their parents at that time. The secondary reason cited for this restriction is concern about road accidents, but the primary reason is fear of their children being assaulted or molested.

Parents’ perception of the likelihood of this occurring is much exaggerated by the attention paid to it in the media on the rare occasions when it happens. However, the British Crime Survey does show that these incidents rarely occur in the morning. Thus, the extra hour of daylight in the latter part of the day would be advantageous not only because children are more likely to dawdle on the way home from school on school days but also because their leisure lives out of the home are generally far more focused on the period of the day around sunset than around sunrise. From this, it could be construed that parents would be relieved of some of this fear by the extra hour of daylight on each day of the year following the adoption of SDST.

Leisure activity
More daylight in the late afternoon or evening would obviously have its greatest impact on leisure activity. There is evidence of growing public interest and participation in outdoor recreation. Over seven million children now engage in one or other form of sport outside school hours at least once a month. And schools are becoming interested in new types of timetable to allow for an appreciable period of the day after school which can be used for this purpose. This all reflects the obvious general preference for leisure hours being enjoyed in as much daylight as possible. The early hours of the morning are not an active time for outdoor leisure activity for most people, especially children. Generally, we do what we have to do, like going to school or work, and then we take our recreation.

At present, the average timing of sunset during the year is 6.35pm ‑ taking account of the five months of winter GMT and the seven months of summer BST. This means that SDST, with the clock one hour ahead of its current setting, and with the date for the introduction of winter time set at the end of September to harmonise with the date used by all European countries other than Eire, would result in the average time of sunset occurring at 7.30pm. This would represent a net daily gain of 55 minutes of ‘accessible’ daylight hours in the evenings and would enable more journeys both to and from indoor and outdoor activities to be made in daylight. For children, calculations relating to the onset of dusk indicate that it would result in an increase for children of 12 per cent in the number of daylight hours for their leisure at weekends and during school holidays. On school days, the increase would be a remarkable 35 per cent.

Not surprisingly, organisations which have looked into the likely impact of the proposal from the viewpoint of those whose interests they represent have expressed support for the extra hour of daylight being transferred to ‘the right end of the day’.

Health and wellbeing
Daylight clearly plays an important role in the pattern of people’s daily lives. They feel happier and more energetic in the summer with its longer and brighter days and they generally demonstrate a greater sense of well-being at this time of year. In general, daylight is much preferred to artificial light, and there is a natural disposition towards sleeping in the hours of darkness. By contrast, mood and spirit decline during the shorter and duller days of the winter.

For this reason, adding an hour to the number of ‘accessible’ daylight hours in the evenings on every day of the year would be noticeably beneficial. There is also the additional share of sunlight hours, with their therapeutic value, during the 25 per cent of daylight hours which meteorological data show are in sunlight and are fairly evenly distributed at either end of the day.

The additional hour of daylight in the evenings throughout the year would be likely to more than compensate for the somewhat depressing impact of the gloomier start to winter days, especially in northern latitudes. Many studies of physical and mental health suggest that the adoption of SDST would lead to an overall improvement in the quality of life and in fitness, and would have a preventive health role for some important medical conditions.

Children do not get enough exercise. The School Curriculum allocates insufficient time for physical education and, for a significant part of the year, the onset of dusk limits opportunities after school for outdoor activity. Recent surveys have shown that one in two girls and one in three boys exercise insufficiently to maintain their physical health. Putting the clock one hour forward would clearly help to reverse the trend towards this decline in fitness. Indeed, less physical and mental fatigue and better performance have been found among children studying in the improved lighting conditions that daylight provides, and sickness rates are lowered.

As has been noted, most children are restricted by their parents from going out after dark. The extra hour of evening daylight would diminish anxiety on this, and parents would therefore be likely to let their children spend more time outdoors, with the further built-in advantage of being able to engage in activity free of adult surveillance, enabling them better to develop socially and emotionally.

The difficulty of getting children to go to bed and fall asleep while it is still light could be a problem were it not for their considerable capacity to adapt to slowly changing environments. Reference can be made to the way in which children living in Scandinavia cope with exceptionally long light evenings. Perhaps surprisingly, research in Norway has shown that sleeping problems are four times as common in the long dark nights of winter than in the light nights of summer.

Darker mornings would exacerbate the already depressing start to the day in the winter, especially for those living in northerly latitudes ‑ it would be unrealistic to expect that such a major change to our way of life could be achieved without some disadvantages. However, our research has shown that the benefits would be widespread and enjoyed by the great majority of the population, and this brief review has shown that children in particular would gain from the reform.

The decision as to whether SDST is to be adopted should be a political one based on a balanced assessment of the record of its likely advantages as well as of its disadvantages compared with maintaining the status quo. It is shameful that to date we have been obliged to forego the considerable improvement in our quality of life that would follow its adoption. A government introducing a reform that is, judging by opinion polls on the subject, likely to be so widely welcomed, would reap substantial rewards in appreciation of its action.

Published in Childright No. 103, January/February 1994.

This article is based on the author’s research studies which have been published in two PSI reports: Making the most of daylight hours: the costs and benefits of moving an hour of daylight from the morning to the evening 1988; and its update Time for change: a new review of the evidence on setting clocks forward by one hour throughout the year 1993.

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