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Should West Texas change time zones? One researcher says it could make roads safer

 A recent study from Eastern New Mexico University suggests much of West Texas is in a misaligned time zone.
Matthew Rutledge
A recent study from Eastern New Mexico University suggests much of West Texas is in a misaligned time zone.

Do you feel like you’ve adjusted to daylight saving time yet? Having a later sunset may be nice, but recent research from Eastern New Mexico University suggests traffic fatality rates are higher in places where people don’t wake up with the sun.

Researcher Jeff Gentry says he first felt the effects of what are called misaligned time zones when he moved from Western Oklahoma, which observes Central Time, to Mountain Time in New Mexico.

“I didn’t really think about it. I just thought, ‘Wow, it’s a lot easier to get up in the morning,’” Gentry said.

Mountain Time is an hour behind Central. Gentry developed a hypothesis.

“Is there a way to judge whether the sun has anything to do with how we feel in the morning, and our alertness?” Gentry asked. “I had no idea there is an entire branch of biology called chronobiology.”

Chronobiology studies the effects of time on living systems. Gentry is a communications professor at ENMU, so this science was new to him. As he dug into the topic, he found research shows correlations between how you experience time and health conditions like diabetes and dementia, among others.

Gentry’s study, which was conducted with the help of Jayson Evaniuck and Ivana Mali also from ENMU and Thanchira Suriyamongkol from Southern Illinois University, found another impact.

“Our study adds highway fatalities to the list of problems associated with artificial time,” he said.

Researchers analyzed 12 years of county-level fatality data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Across the country, they found higher crash fatality rates in places where social time doesn’t align with solar time.

Here’s an example: El Paso is in the Mountain Time zone and experiences a lower rate of fatal crashes. By comparison, Lubbock has a 13% higher vehicle-fatality rate than the national average. It’s worse in Amarillo, where the death rate skews 92% higher.

The data suggests living in the wrong time zone may impact Texas most of all. The researchers found this trend in the Eastern, Central, and Mountain Time zones, but not Pacific Time. The Pacific zone better matches the sun - and the analyzed data found that roads in that time zone are some of the safest in the country.

Neurologist and Sleep Expert Dr. Karin Johnson said Gentry’s research aligns with what others have found in the correlation between sunlight and health. Johnson works with the organization Save Standard Time, which advocates for Permanent Standard Time. The group, along with the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, believes switching to Permanent Standard Time could help people get the right duration of sleep, which improves cognition, mood, cardiovascular health and overall well-being.

“Morning light is the good kind of light,” Johnson said. “This goes along with hundreds of studies we have on the relationship between sleep, circadian rhythms and mood disorders.”

Johnson and Gentry have both pitched time policy options that could benefit health and safety. Gentry suggests delaying the start of the business and school day to after 8:30 a.m. would help.

He said every community west of I-35 in Texas, about two-thirds of the state, would better align with the Mountain Time zone. It takes an act of Congress to change time zones, which doesn’t happen often.

State Rep. Glenn Rogers filed a bill this Texas legislative session that would allow Texans to vote on whether they want to adopt standard time or daylight saving time during the general election later this year. The bill was referred to the state affairs committee earlier this month, as reported by The Austin American-Statesman.

Copyright 2023 KTTZ 89.1FM. To see more, visit KTTZ 89.1FM.

Sarah Self-Walbrick