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Does Daylight Savings Affect Crime?

By Vaidehi Mehta, Esq. | Last updated on

This weekend marks the single time of year when night owls and sleepyheads have their silver lining: most Americans will be setting their clocks back an hour on Sunday to mark the ending of Daylight Savings Time. As you may know, this long-established practice has been controversial for years, with many pushing to overturn what they see as antiquated and unnecessary, while others tout the merits of DST as being beneficial in various ways.

All states currently observe DST, with two exceptions: Arizona and Hawaii. Those states have their own good reasons to opt-out. Arizona perhaps because it's the sunniest state (sorry, Florida, you don't even make the top five); Hawaii perhaps because of its tropical latitude (there's so little variation in daylight length between winter and summer in Hawaii that it's unnecessary). In addition and for similar reasons, none of the U.S. territories observe DST, including American Samoa, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, Puerto Rico, and the United States Virgin Islands.

In the past several years, more than half of U.S. states have introduced legislation to either end the practice or to do it only if neighboring states do the same. But none of these laws overturning DST have passed. The decision of whether or not to observe DST is up to each state and territory. There is no federal law that requires states or territories to observe DST — but the feds have certainly been trying.

The Sunshine Protection Act was a proposed law introduced in Congress last year that would make DST required and permanent in the United States. The bill has been introduced in Congress several times, most recently in 2023, though it still hasn't passed.

As the legislative debate of this century-old practice continues, you have to wonder: what are the pros and cons? Well, since we're a legal site, we'll touch on the major law-related argument that advocates of DST have articulated time and again: that it allegedly improves public safety and reduces crime rates.

Time to Crime

2012 analysis by Stanford University reviewed data from the National Incidence-Based Reporting System to see how the likelihood of getting caught in different periods of daylight impacted criminal activity.

That study found that, after the shift to DST in the spring, robbery rates decreased by an average of 51%. It also found that there were large drops in cases of other reported crimes: a 48% decrease in reported murder and a 506% decrease in reported rape. Since the study saw that the effect of this decrease was most significant during the daylight hour of sunset (which would have been darkness without DST), it concluded that the amount of daylight was the cause (rather than other factors such as police presence). Using the calculus for the "social cost of crime," the study estimated that in 2007, applying DST resulted in $558 million in "savings" from avoided costs per year.

However, the study also looked into the question of why daylight affected crime rates. Was it just that criminals found it harder to execute their crimes in darkness? The study concluded otherwise. It found that the evidence suggests criminals were deterred from committing crimes because they figured they were more likely to get caught in daylight. From that, the analysis suggested that investing in streetlights could have much of the same effects as keeping DST.

The 2007 Extension of DST

In 2007, DST was "extended," a change to the United States' DST schedule that was enacted by the Energy Policy Act of 2005. The act extended the start of DST by three weeks and the end of DST by one week, for a total of four weeks longer. Prior to 2007, DST began on the first Sunday in April and ended on the last Sunday in October. Under the new schedule which is still current, DST begins on the second Sunday in March and ends on the first Sunday in November.

The main reason for the extension of DST was to conserve energy. The Energy Policy Act of 2005 estimated that the extension of DST would save about 1.3 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity annually. This is equivalent to the electricity used by about 100,000 homes for a year.

In addition to the energy savings, the Energy Policy Act of 2005 also argued that the extension of DST would reduce traffic accidents and crime. The act cited studies that showed that DST was associated with a decrease in robberies and traffic fatalities.

In light of the 2007 extension, a 2015 study inThe Review of Economics and Statistics also explored the impact of light on criminal activity. It found a 7% decrease in robberies following the shift to DST, with the largest impact (27%) during the sunset hours directly affected by the shift in daylight. It estimated that the 2007 extension resulted in $59 million per year in social cost of crime savings from avoided robberies.

review of that data by the Brookings Institution and Cornell University pointed out that the majority of street crime occurs when many people are on their way home from work (about 5 p.m. to 8 p.m.). The authors suggested that possibly by resetting our clocks in the spring and adding more light during those hours, potential victims could more easily identify potential threats and more easily avoid them. In addition, they pointed out that added light lets victims get a better look at their attackers and helps them identify criminals after the fact.

Do Crime Benefits Outweigh DST Cons?

But is this enough of a reason to implement DST? And is it outweighed by the cons that come with the practice? Overall, there are several strong arguments against DST. Those who want to overturn DST altogether would argue that the health risks, public safety risks, and economic costs of the practice outweigh the potential benefits.

Opponents would point out that data suggests potential negative health risks of DST. The shift might be disrupting sleep patterns and circadian rhythms, which can lead to several health problems, including heart attacks, strokes, diabetes, and depression. And, despite the purported energy-efficiency reasons to implement DST, some data shows that the practice can lead to decreased productivity and increased energy consumption.

Although DST might be correlated to a decreased crime rate, data shows that DST increases the risk of accidents. Studies have shown that there is an increase in traffic accidents and workplace injuries in the days and weeks following the springtime change. One theory is that this is due to sleep deprivation and the disruption of circadian rhythms.

Given that the data is not super robust and that there are mixed findings in the few studies we have, it doesn't seem that there's a landslide argument about continuing DST on grounds of public safety just yet. States and the federal government are still arguing for and against the practice, and probably will be for some time. For now, though, the practice isn't going to be going away anytime soon in most of the country. So, don't forget to set your clocks back this Sunday and let yourself get an extra hour of much-needed sleep!

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