Lesley Riddoch: High time for a rethink on daylight saving hours

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A previous trial found darker mornings and lighter evenings actually saved lives, so why are we so quick to dismiss the idea

WELCOME to winter. The days are shorter, the geese have arrived, leaves are turning and seasonal change is clearly under way.

But does today really feel like the first day of winter? There’s no early snow. In fact London is basking in 18 degrees of sunshine.

Nonetheless, this weekend the clocks went back as part of a bizarre annual ritual in which light-craving Britons shut the sun out of their spare time and afternoon lives. Thanks to this unfathomable act of collective masochism, it will indeed feel like winter tonight because the end of the working day will (roughly) coincide with the end of available daylight – seven weeks ahead of the winter solstice. Not as mad as March though, when it’s dark at 5pm but light at a sleep-destroying 5am. All that early evening gloom in the name of what – child safety?

It’s worth restating the actual findings of the 1968-71 experiment. Three years of darker mornings and lighter evenings saved an estimated 2,700 lives. Slightly more kids were injured during the darker mornings, but far, far fewer were killed during the lighter afternoons – a time of day when more drivers are tired and accident prone and kids dawdle home from school. The net result was a saving in lives which no-one has subsequently questioned.

But only the slight rise in morning fatalities got publicity. So the preoccupation with dangerous dark mornings endured – resulting in last week’s knee-jerk rejection of the latest clock change proposals by every Scottish party leader.

Since the current Lighter Later Bill is proposed by a plummy-sounding English (Class Enemy) Tory, supported by David (Cuts) Cameron and puts Britain on Central European (Big Bailout) Time, the autopilot switched on almost unbidden.

If politics is the art of the possible, it may be practically impossible for Alex Salmond to pick his way across that field of political tripwires to support a change that hardly seems to matter to anyone.

So the Scottish Government’s message to David Cameron and the citizens of the UK has been as predictable as it is disappointing. “No common sense please – we’re Scottish.”

Does no-one care about the threat to children posed by dark killer evenings north of the Border?

The charity Royal Society for the Prevention of Accicdents (ROSPA) does. According to the normally mild-mannered safety people: “Since the 1968-71 experiment, 5,000 people have died and more than 30,000 received serious (road) injuries for no reasons other than entrenched prejudice and lack of political will.”

The National Farmers Union of Scotland has bravely supported the notion of another trial – reserving the right to turn the clocks back (literally) if the promised safety improvements don’t happen.

An opinion poll suggests a majority of Scots support that position, too.

And conservationists also back change – a closer fit between natural daylight and working hours will create greater energy savings than taking 200,000 cars off the road every year.

For once, the SNP are behind the curve of civic opinion.

Why? Perhaps Alex Salmond and Scottish Secretary Michael Moore think the safety advantages revealed by the trial in the 1960s are confined only to the south of England. The only person to have thoroughly analysed the research findings is Dr Mayer Hillman, a veteran advocate of clock change. He says proportionately more Scots lives were saved during the years of lighter afternoons and darker mornings.

But as critics point out, he would say that wouldn’t he? Critics of change have relied on an (understandable) emotional aversion to morning darkness rather than a different analysis of the facts. Indeed, arch-sceptic Angus Brendan MacNeil MP partly concedes the argument with his proposal to cut the duration of the clock shift to six weeks either side of midwinter instead of the current endless 21 weeks.

The evidence lies completely ignored – and is now 40 years old That’s why Rebecca Harris’s bill is calling for a new trial.

A rerun of the 1968-71 experiment may actually put a big hole in the case for permanent clock change. Since 1968, drink driving has been made illegal and lunchtime drinking is now rare so roads and evenings may be relatively safer without clock change. Since the 1960s, however, we have become fatter and more sedentary. Modern kids are threatened just as much by the long-term effects of obesity and physical inactivity as the ill-effects of careless winter drivers. Would extra time after school encourage Scots to get out more – or just to watch more TV?

So why not conduct another daylight saving trial to find out?

Perhaps there should be a slow shift of the UK away from a self image based on tradition (however unfair) and tiny distinguishing characteristics like driving on the left. Indeed, this may be our fundamental problem with the EU, whose original brief was to standardise measurements.

We stayed out of a disastrous euro. We kept our pounds and ounces, feet and yards, three-pin plugs, right-hand drive and our position of splendid isolation, sailing into each new day an hour ahead of mainland Europe. Ergo we are British – different from “them”.

Does our idea of ourselves still rely on evidence-defying, daylight-defeating habits?

I’ll bet the Irish feel more Irish today with a well-read, fabulously idiosyncratic poet like Michael D Higgins at the presidential helm than they ever did having empty arguments with the British about accepting English banknotes.

Cultural identity should be about bigger things.

If it makes us safer, happier, more energy efficient and more outgoing to have an extra afternoon hour from November to March why is Scotland resisting the case for clock change?