Daylight saving time, the practice of advancing clocks during spring and summer to create longer evenings, has existed in Canada for more than a century. At the time it was adopted, the goal of the program was to save energy: the longer the sun stayed up, the thinking went, the less time people would spend indoors under artificial lighting.
Today, daylight saving time is deeply unpopular. Not only does it deprive Canadians of an hour of precious sleep, but it increases the risk of car accidents, strokes, heart attacks, workplace injuries, and more. Many car accident lawyers experience an increase in queries in the week following the time change.
In January, researchers at the University of Colorado at Boulder published a study in Current Biology on the effect of daylight saving time on road safety. It analyzed more than 730,000 accidents between 1996 and 2017 and found a six per cent spike in fatal car accidents in the week following the annual ‘spring forward.’ The spike accounted for 28 deaths per year, on average.
“Our study provides additional, rigorous evidence that the switch to daylight saving time in spring leads to negative health and safety impacts,” said senior author Celine Vetter, an assistant professor of integrative physiology. “These effects on fatal traffic accidents are real, and these deaths can be prevented.”
Most strikingly, the researchers found that the one-week spike in fatal accidents shifted alongside a major change to daylight saving time in 2007. Prior to that year, the ‘spring forward’ occurred in early April; since then, it occurs in mid- to early-March.
“Prior to 2007, we saw the risk increase in April, and when daylight saving time moved to March, so did the increase,” said Vetter. “That gave us even more confidence that the risk increase we observe is indeed attributable to the daylight saving time switch and not something else.”
The study also shows that drivers in the western-most regions of each time zone were more likely to be affected by the change, with fatal accidents in those regions increasing by eight per cent rather than six.
The spike is caused by both environmental factors – collisions are more likely to occur in the dark – and physiological ones. As road safety experts and car accident lawyers understand, fatigue can have a significant impact on a driver’s decision-making and judgement. It can also make them less attentive to the road.
The return to standard time, or ‘fall back,’ which occurs in October or November, also presents safety risks. According to Driving.ca, personal injury accidents involving vulnerable road users increase drastically between 5pm and 8pm in the week following the time change. The Société de l’assurance automobile du Québec (SAAQ) said that between 2013 and 2018, an average of 430 pedestrians were injured in the month prior to the time change and an average of 537 were injured afterward. The risk is similar in Ontario: the Ministry of Transportation reported a 19 per cent increase in injuries between 5pm and 8pm in the week following the ‘fall back.’
“This remains very similar with our 2010 to 2015 statistics, and doesn’t really seem to have changed over the years,” SAAQ spokesperson Sophie Roy told Driving.
Fatigue isn’t a factor in the accidents following the return to standard time – after all, drivers should have had an extra hour of sleep. But the suddenly dark evenings are ripe for accidents involving cyclists and pedestrians, particularly because they coincide with the homeward commute.
Many car accident lawyers, road safety activists, and even average Canadians would happily abolish daylight saving time. The energy-saving rationale that originally inspired the practice makes less sense today than it did 100 years ago – most Canadian households have heating and air-conditioning systems that run more-or-less year-round. And English road safety charity Brake estimated that ditching daylight saving time could prevent 80 deaths and 200 serious injuries per year in that country.
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