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A PHYSICIST WRITES . . .
“Summer-time, and the living is easy,” ... but at the end of October the clocks go back to Greenwich Mean Time, and for days afterwards I find that sleeping is not at all easy. I struggle to keep my eyes open until the new bedtime, but still wake up the next day an hour early (according to the clock). And then in March when BST returns, again I lose an hour’s sleep a night because I can’t drop off when I ought to.
Then there’s the labour of resetting all our clocks, watches and other displays twice a year. I was amused to read that this year, several towns and cities awoke to find that their public clocks were displaying GMT a week early. The reason was that the clocks were designed to reset automatically but had been wrongly programmed to go back on the fourth Sunday in October instead of the final one — and October this year had five Sundays!
Anyway, why do we put ourselves through this inconvenience? In the summer we like to have long bright evenings, while in winter the priority is early-morning daylight — but is it worth the switch? Well, I can remember the three winters starting in 1968 when BST was kept right through, as an experiment. The sun rose at a gloomy 9 am in midwinter (or an hour later still in N Scotland) and the idea was firmly rejected by Parliament.
And so we continue with all European clocks switching backward and forward in unison, but with our own time-zone always an hour behind most of the Continent. Fair enough — we are further west than most of it. But the mismatch doesn’t suit those in the UK and across the Channel who need to be in frequent communication with each other.
There are other things to be said in favour of a permanent move ahead to continental time. Lighter evenings all year round would benefit the old and the young, also the leisure and tourism industries. There would be savings in fuel costs (I have seen mentioned a figure of £100 million annually). Day trips to the Continent would be easier to plan. But against these advantages would be the dreary experience of having to rise and go to work or to school in winter darkness, much more than at present.
Perhaps you have guessed that I am circling nervously around the question which, some say, really ought to decide whether or not we should convert to European Time: what would be the effect on road accidents and fatalities?
Now I would have thought that the deadly combination of winter fog, frost and darkness is more likely to afflict the morning rush-hour than the evening one. Hence keeping our clocks back and delaying the morning rush would be better. In the winter then, surely Greenwich Mean Time means safer roads (and pedestrians), on average at least?
Not so — some highly scientific predictions have been carried out and they say exactly the opposite! The number of deaths and serious injuries would, apparently, be reduced by many hundreds a year if we advanced to match continental time. And such a saving actually occurred in the 1968 experiment I mentioned, but was largely ignored at the time.
But how might this accident reduction actually come about? One suggestion is that commuting drivers concentrate more and cope better with the darkness in the winter mornings than they do in the evenings when they are tired. Traffic can be heavier too in the evening, with ‘social’ journeys being added to business ones.
Another point is that school-children tend to take a longer route on the homeward journey than in the morning. All these things probably contribute to a high evening accident rate in winter (in GMT), which could be reduced significantly by advancing the clocks.
Inevitably there would be a (smaller) increase in morning accidents, with certain groups of people definitely being more at risk. If a change to European Time in the winter takes place, this is something that the proposers will have to face.
But I hope they don’t bother with switching the clocks on another hour in March for what would be even longer summer evenings, and then back again in October — I need the sleep!
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