Credit: George Danby / BDN

Mainers will wake up Sunday likely feeling a bit odd, as we usually do when we “fall back” and switch the clocks back from Daylight Saving Time. In the evening, the sun will set at 4:15 p.m. By December, the sun will set before 4 p.m. We won’t see the sun after 5 p.m. again until mid-February. By most accounts, it’s a total bummer.

It doesn’t have to be that way, though. All it would take would be for Maine to switch to Atlantic Standard Time, the one-hour-later time zone shared by our neighbors in New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island, as well as much of the Caribbean and South America.

Geographically, it makes sense. The sun sets around 4:40 p.m. in the first weeks of December in Toronto, Ontario. Some 600 miles east in Portland, it sets around 4 p.m., although the two places are at almost the same latitude and are in the same time zone.

“How far east we are in the time zone doesn’t affect how much sunlight we get; it affects when that daylight falls on the clock,” said Jacquelyn Gill, a climate scientist and geographer at the University of Maine. “We are far enough on the eastern edge of the time zone that it’s noticeable, because of the distance.”

It’s not that wild of a proposition. Bills to support moving Maine to Atlantic Time and ending Daylight Saving Time here have been introduced in the Maine Legislature several times. In 2017, both the Maine House and Senate passed such legislation in initial votes, but it died after the two chambers didn’t reconcile conflicting versions. In 2019, it was introduced again, but died in committee.

Similar bills have been proposed in all New England states but Vermont, including Rhode Island in 2016,  Massachusetts in 2017, Connecticut in 2021 and New Hampshire in 2019 and again this year. Massachusetts even commissioned a special report on the prospect of switching, informed by politicians, doctors, educators and other officials. Every state, however, had stipulations that the change could only occur if other New England states also agreed to switch.

The sun sets over Munjoy Hill in Portland in November of 2019. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

Switches to different time zones at the state level have not happened in recent U.S. history, though counties and cities have sometimes done so, most recently with Mercer County in North Dakota switching from Mountain to Central in 2010. Time zone switches of any kind have to be approved by the U.S. Department of Transportation or by Congress.

There are pros and cons to remaining on Eastern, or switching to Atlantic. Some of the positives about switching would be that with more daylight in the evening, people are more likely to spend that time doing things outside of the house, like shopping, dining out and exercising. Crime rates are generally lower during months with more daylight in the evening, with robberies in particular 27 percent less likely to happen during the evening commute if it is light out, compared to dark.

There are also potential improvements in public health, as the yearly transition to Standard Time corresponds with an uptick in everything from traffic fatalities to heart attacks. There could be energy savings as well, as there would be more daylight in the evenings, which means fewer lights on.

There are drawbacks, however. There would be challenges in scheduling travel between New England and the rest of the East Coast. Evening broadcasts like the nightly news would start an hour later, and many sports broadcasts wouldn’t end until well after midnight.

One of the most common arguments against switching to Atlantic Time is that it would put us out of sync with the rest of the East Coast. But there are plenty of states that straddle two time zones — Kentucky and Tennessee are split nearly in half by Eastern and Central, and Arizona doesn’t observe Daylight Saving Time at all.

Students get dropped off in the morning at Brewer High School in January of 2021. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

Most schools in Maine start the day before 8 a.m. If the state switched to Atlantic Time, students would commute to school in darkness or twilight for several months of the year — though that also means they’d have an extra hour of daylight in the evening for activities and the after-school commute. That said, some schools in Maine have already shifted middle and high school start times to after 8 a.m., based on recommendations from doctors and educators that later start times result in improved academic performance and general well being among teenagers.

Overall, the benefits seem to outweigh the drawbacks. So why haven’t Maine and other New England states done it?

There are lots of possible reasons, ranging from it being hard to coordinate multiple state legislatures and populations to all agree to the same action, to it simply not being a high priority when there are so many other issues that require more immediate legislative attention.

And, of course, there’s still a debate about it — some people would love to have an extra hour of daylight at the end of the day, while others would hate to have the sun not rise until just after 8 a.m. for most of December and January.

In the end, much of the debate about Maine switching to Atlantic Time is similar to the larger debate about whether the U.S. as a whole should abolish Daylight Saving Time. And that’s a debate that happens every year when the time change rolls around — plunging night owls into darkness, and giving early birds something to crow about when their mornings have more light.

Will either of those things ever happen? As the old saying goes: time will tell.

Correction: An earlier version of this reported misidentified the state where Mercer County is located.

Emily Burnham

Emily Burnham is a Maine native and proud Bangorian, covering business, the arts, restaurants and the culture and history of the Bangor region.