By Francis M. Smith
Despite the stubborn residue of the last snowstorm still clinging to curbs and lawns, spring is only a matter of weeks away, and with it comes one of the more curious phenomena of the modern era: Daylight Savings Time. However, as we “spring forward” to chase the gradually-expanding daylight hours, it’s worth taking a moment to consider how the transition will affect our bodies and our safety as we make our daily commutes.
Every person needs a certain amount of sleep each night in order to function normally. Common wisdom advises adults to get eight hours of sleep a night, though medical professionals have acknowledged the busy pace of modern life and recommend a minimum of seven hours nightly. Even with this lower bar to clear, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that more than 1 in 3 American motorists do not reach that minimum goal of seven hours’ sleep each night. Driving while drowsy lowers a motorist’s alertness and slows their reaction time, and may cause them to drift between lanes or make other dangerous errors, up to the point of falling asleep at the wheel entirely.
The springtime Daylight Savings recalibration steals an hour from everyone’s sleep cycles on the night of Sunday, March 10th. For anyone just barely sleeping for their medically-recommended seven hours (or falling short of that goal entirely), the difference that missing hour makes can be dangerous. A study conducted by the University of Colorado Boulder revealed a 17 percent spike in traffic accidents on the Monday following the Daylight Savings readjustment, with higher than average accident rates persisting for the rest of the week following. Research by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety suggests that drowsiness is a contributing factor in 10 percent of all traffic collisions, and in more than 20 percent of fatal crashes.
In addition to the loss of valuable sleep, the Daylight Savings shift also gives rise to another hazard. As far as the sun is concerned, your daily schedule will begin an hour earlier after March 10th, meaning it will be darker outside, and the sun will be lower in the sky, than it was the Friday before. Darkness and poor visibility make for dangerous conditions on the road, especially in areas with significant pedestrian traffic. The Governors Highway Safety Association reports that 75 percent of pedestrian deaths in automotive accidents happen during hours when it’s dark outside. Even once the sun rises, visibility problems for drivers do not disappear, as the sun will still sit low on the horizon for an hour later than previously, causing glare in the sight-lines of drivers.
With some foresight, motorists can mitigate the negative effects that the Daylight Savings shift can have on their own driving.
• Adjust your sleep cycle gradually in the week leading up to the Daylight Savings shift, going to bed 15 minutes earlier each day.
• On the night before Daylight Savings begins, plan your bedtime as though the clock change had already happened, to avoid losing that hour of sleep.
• Make a particular point of avoiding distractions while driving, even more than you normally would. Watch for pedestrians, especially when backing up.
• Use your sun visor or polarized sunglasses to reduce the interference with your vision caused by sun glare – but whenever possible, make all necessary adjustments to these tools while your car is parked.
• Turn on your headlights to make your vehicle more visible during hours of low light levels (such as the early morning), but avoid using your high beams when they may disrupt another road user’s vision.
Pedestrians should also take additional precautions around Daylight Savings time, both to avoid making dangerous errors due to drowsiness and to remain alert for drivers who may be suffering the effects of “springing ahead.”
• Wear brightly colored or reflective clothing when you will be walking near traffic. At night or in dim light, carrying a flashlight is an additional safety measure.
• Whenever possible, only cross at marked crosswalks and corners, and avoid areas without sidewalks. If you must travel a route without a sidewalk, walk facing oncoming traffic.
• Avoid distractions while walking that may prevent you from seeing or hearing the approach of a vehicle or other dangerous circumstance. Stay alert to your surroundings and pay attention to the behavior of nearby vehicles. Be sure that winter clothing or umbrellas do not obstruct your view of traffic.
The disruption that Daylight Savings Time causes to our daily schedules is short-lived but significant, though with a little preparation you can reduce the driving risks associated with the clock shift and proceed with life as normal... until the time eventually comes to "fall back" once again, and you can look forward to the process repeating next year.