Looking a gift horse in the mouth

It must be rare to find a means of vastly improving the quality of life of nearly everyone ‑ men, women and children alike – and for it to cost nothing.

We spend about five of our waking hours before midday but ten to eleven of them after midday. Achieving a better matching of our waking hours and the available daylight during the year by moving clocks forward by an additional hour from their current setting in both winter (one hour ahead of GMT) and summer (two hours ahead of GMT) is a unique way of doing so.

Some years ago, the independent Policy Studies Institute undertook a thorough study of the likely outcome such a change. Two reports were published on it ‑ “Making the Most of Daylight Hours” and “Time for Change”*. The study identified in detail the consequences for all sectors of society of altering our clocks by transferring an hour of daylight from the morning to the evening. It concluded that the benefits would far outweigh the disbenefits. This is simply explained. As the great majority of us get up well after sunrise for most of the year, it would result in an extra hour of daylight being enjoyed in the evening of every one of the 365 days of the year whereas the extra hour of morning darkness would typically affect people on only about 40 working days of the winter.

Foremost among the benefits would be far more opportunities foroutdoor leisure in the evenings, whether for sports or other recreational and social activity involving getting out of the home. Dusk acts as a curfew for many. Surveys show that most parents do not like their children to be out after dark and most elderly people are fearful of doing so. Sunset an hour later throughout the year would give us more daylight hours to enjoy after coming home in the evenings. As a direct outcome, public health would be improved. And it would be a boon too for the leisure industry.

Nowadays far fewer people, such as postmen and dairy farmers, have to get up early in the morning and would therefore have to contend with the additional hour of morning darkness during the winter. But in any case they too have leisure lives and would gain throughout the year from more evening daylight. Rather than deny nearly everyone the considerable advantage of the lighter evenings, work could start later in the winter in the few affected areas of work, as is done in Scandinavia.

The clock change would also achieve a significant reduction in road casualties. There are several reasons for this. Taking account of all seven days of the week, there is far more traffic and more deaths and serious injuries between 3pm and 6pm than between 7am and 10am. More journeys could be made in daylight in the evening on every day of the year as would have to be made in the extra hour of early morning darkness on winter days. The Transport Research Laboratory has estimated that the clock change would lead overall to well over 500 fewer deaths and serious injuries on the roads each year. About three-quarters of the reduction would accrue in the 22 weeks on the wintertime clock and a quarter in the 30 weeks on the summertime setting.

When this issue was last debated, one of the primary reasons for opposing the clock change was that the lives of children would be put at greater risk by having to go to school in the dark on winter mornings. However, this focus was ill-placed. The three weeks of the Christmas holidays occur at the time of year when mornings are darkest. More pertinently still, only 4 per cent of children’s fatalities and 8 per cent of their serious injuries on the roads occur on these journeys. In other words, the great majority take place in their leisure time travel and this is far more common around the time of dusk than dawn. Indeed, nearly five times as many of their deaths and injuries occur in the three affected hours of the late afternoon than those of the early morning. Small wonder that all organisations with a direct responsibility for reducing the number of casualties on the roads have indicated their strong support for the clock change.

Lighter evenings would encourage more weekend breaks, with a significant boost to revenues and employment in domestic tourism. In addition, as the effect of the change would result in our clocks being harmonised with nearly all Central and West European countries, more convenient trade, travel and communications with them can be realistically predicted. And a small reduction in criminal offences such as burglary and mugging would also follow as these are less common in daylight than in darkness.

Any government introducing this reform is likely to reap substantial political rewards, particularly as public opinion has repeatedly been shown to favour it ‑ now 4:1 in England and Wales and fairly evenly divided in Scotland. Why then are the leaders ofthe main political parties prepared to let slip this opportunity of achieving a considerable improvement in our quality of life, in road safety, and in the UK economy from the lighter evenings ‑ and at no cost to the Exchequer? Why have successive Governments fought shy for so many years of introducing legislation to this end, particularly when the arguments deployed by its opponents are so insubstantial?

The only reason appears to be narrow political expediency ‑ a fear of alienating some voters, particularly in Scotland. That would be more understandable if these voters were not a small minority whose judgement has been distorted by lack of knowledge or misrepresentation of facts. The PSI research established that the Scots would derive as much advantage as the rest of the UK population.

We have a right to be dismayed if the public interest is not being served by our elected representatives. It’s surely high time to make this change. All that is required is the easy and painless act of the majority of MPs voting in its support. When this happens, I am extremely confident that we will regret the fact that we did not exert pressure for it to happen sooner.

Published in the Yorkshire Post on 27 March 2006.

*Dr. Hillman conducted the research and was the author of the two reports.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s