What a difference a time zone makes

As Wayne County prepares to move to Eastern time, many residents are loath to see 'slow time' go.

TIME seems to move a little slower here in Wayne County. Retired factory workers fill the billiard hall down in Monticello at lunchtime, and countryside tobacco-curing barns mark time by the season, not days or minutes.

But the times are changing - by one hour, to be exact.

This fall, the Kentucky county will move from central to Eastern time. The move - only the fifth change in US time-zone boundaries in the past 15 years - is an effort to attract commerce from larger cities on Eastern time. But it will affect more than just prime-time TV shows and trips to nearby Somerset, Ky.

Like food and speech, time zones can shape a community's identity in subtle and personal ways; some experts even refer to "time accents." And to many here in Wayne County, the change is thrusting a rural county that has been on the "slow time" of cattle pastures and corn fields into the bustle of East Coast "fast time."

"It's very much a cultural-identity thing," says Joanne Petrie, an attorney at the US Department of Transportation who oversees the agency's requests for changes. "The time zone doesn't affect the number of hours of daylight, but people perceive it as having a real effect on the quality of life."

Betty Cooper, for one, is not happy about joining the Eastern time zone. "We're a little more laid back," says the longtime Monticello resident. "The Eastern time zone, it's a faster pace."

Wayne County residents debated the issue for more than a year. Politicians in favor of the change promised increased wages and more jobs as the county links itself to the bigger cities on Eastern time. Opponents said children would be standing in the dark to catch school buses, and farmers would have to wait an hour to work their fields in the morning.

Federal officials received 2,500 comments from the county's 9,000 residents. About 72 percent of the respondents favored the change.

It's an idea other communities have toyed with before. Maine once pondered switching to Atlantic time to be the first time zone in the US. Florida also considered changing zones so it could get more afternoon sunshine.

Louisville, Ky., actually did switch from central to Eastern time in 1961, and, during the past 15 years, communities in Kansas, North Dakota, Indiana, and Nevada have changed time zones.

The entire state of Alaska (except the Aleutian Islands) entered Alaska Standard Time in 1984. Before, it had been divided into four zones with names like Yukon and Bering.

The invention of the mechanical clock in the 1300s heralded the advent of precisely measured time. This was accelerated by the rise of industrialization and interstate trade, says Carlene Stephens, curator of the Smithsonian's "On Time" exhibit in Washington.

American railroad companies created the system of using four standard time zones in the continental United States to avert having their trains collide. Ultimately, Congress codified the system in the Uniform Time Act of 1918.

As a legacy of the railroad empire, the Department of Transportation still regulates American time zones. It receives about one or two requests a year for changes, but most are turned down because the community cannot prove the change would benefit the "convenience of commerce," Ms. Petrie says.

The Transportation Department considers factors such as where residents shop, work, and attend school; where local transportation hubs are located; and where media outlets are based.

IN WAYNE County, officials noted that many residents rely on Somerset, which is on Eastern time, for medical care and jobs. The nearest major newspaper, TV stations, and commercial airport are in Lexington, Ky., also on Eastern time.

Inconvenience was a major reason for the switch. Wayne County's high school sports teams, for example, often play teams from the Eastern time zone.

"We've had mix-ups many, many times," says Larry VanHoose, principal of Monticello Independent High School.

Despite deep divisions in the community, the Transportation Department ended up deciding that the change would benefit Wayne County. The switch will happen Oct. 29, at the end of daylight saving time.

Ms. Stephens hopes to visit Wayne County this fall to see history in the making.

Many people have a sense of time "speeding up" with our busy lives, but few folks have the chance to really think about the structure of time like Wayne County residents did, she says, adding: "Most of us take time for granted."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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