When Benjamin Franklin suggested Parisians could save candle wax by rising with the sun instead of around noon, the 18th-century polymath couldn’t have imagined the debate over what time its citizens kept would still vex European nations in 2018.
But more than 230 years later, the European Union is proposing to abolish the twice yearly clock change that extends daylight hours in summer evenings and makes winter mornings brighter, after a poll found Europeans overwhelmingly dislike the effects of altering their watches by an hour each spring and fall.
“The debate over summertime, wintertime has existed for many years,” European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker told German television Friday.
It has pitted those who think the switch disrupts sleep, causes traffic accidents, harms health and productivity against those who say it saves energy in summer and allows workers to commute to work in daylight during the winter months.
The preliminary results of a survey published Friday found that 84% of the 4.6 million respondents supported keeping the clocks the same in summer and winter.
In Finland, on the northernmost edge of the EU where daylight is almost perpetual in summer and reduced to a few hours in winter, 95% were in favor of scrapping the time change, which has been mandated by European law since 1996. In Greece, located to the south of the bloc, opinion was divided, with 44% of respondents supporting the status quo.
Three time zones operate across the EU but all countries currently change their clocks on the last Sunday of March and the final Sunday of October. The U.S. makes a similar switch but does so slightly earlier and later, in line with the 2005 Energy Policy Act, which extended daylight saving by four weeks in 2007.
A study published in 2015 in The Review of Economics and Statistics estimated that extending daylight-saving time resulted in $59 million in annual social cost savings from avoided robberies because increased daylight hours into the evening reduced crime rates.
The rate of response to the EU’s survey varied across the 28 members of the EU. Germany had the highest proportion of respondents, with 3.79% of the population answering questions about the time change. In the U.K., which is leaving the bloc in March, just 0.02% of people filled in the online questionnaire.
The survey asked respondents to say why they wanted to keep or scrap the time change and gave them options including energy saving, human health, leisure activities in the evening and road safety.
If European lawmakers and member states agree, EU members could choose whether to remain in daylight-saving time—known in the bloc as “summertime”, or be on “wintertime” with lighter mornings the whole year through.
Millions of survey respondents thought that summertime should exist all year and that is what will happen, Mr. Juncker said. “If you ask the citizens you have to do what they want.”
The historic reason for observing daylight-saving time is to conserve energy by pushing sunlight forward into the evening, reducing the need for electric lights. Germany introduced daylight-saving time during World War I and in response, Britain passed the 1916 Daylight Saving Act as an austerity measure. In the U.S., the first national daylight saving law took effect in March 1918.
Benjamin Franklin didn’t suggest a change in time for Parisians, but in his 1784 letter to the Journal of Paris, he proposed the city’s inhabitants could make economies by waking before their usual habit of noon and going to bed earlier to make the most of natural light.
Matthew J. Kotchen, a professor of economics at Yale University who has studied the impact of daylight-saving time on energy consumption, said that daylight saving had little impact on energy use in the modern age, and may even increase it.
“There may be reasons why you would want to switch to daylight saving for people to be able to stay outdoors longer in the evening, but as a policy for saving energy, the evidence suggests that it may increase energy demand rather than decrease it,” Mr. Kotchen said. Since heating and cooling homes consumes more energy than lighting them, a switch to earlier wake-up times could mean greater energy use as people turn on heaters.
“In locations at the western edges of time zones, daylight-saving time makes people wake up at a darker and colder part of the day,” he added. “Then, if this is a time of year when they use heating, and they adjust their thermostats throughout the day, they may use more energy than they otherwise would have.”
—Robert Wall contributed to this article.
Write to Joanna Sugden at [email protected]