Not on Her Watch: One Woman’s Fight to Change Indiana’s Time Zone

It has been 10 years since Indiana adopted Eastern Daylight Time, an issue Hoosiers debated for decades. But as we prepare to ”fall back” this month, a former schoolteacher in Carmel leads a coalition of activists who think we ended up in the wrong time zone—and that children are suffering as a result.
In 2009, a story in the news broke Sue Dillon’s heart. Early in the morning on January 7, just a few miles from her home in Carmel, a man had walked out of his house and found a 15-year-old high-school student named Ziang Ke lying by the street. The boy was injured and in distress. As far as investigators could tell, Ziang, while running to catch his bus, had slipped on the ice and fallen under the vehicle, which ran him over. The driver, unable to see him, had pulled away in the darkness. Ziang lay there for close to 20 minutes before the man discovered him and called for help. The boy died at the hospital.

For Dillon, a former schoolteacher and self-described “mother bear,” the accident wasn’t an accident at all. The bus had rolled over Ziang at about 6:45 a.m., a full hour before sunrise. No passing motorists stopped to assist him because they likely couldn’t see him in the darkness. Had Carmel’s clocks been set one hour earlier, Ziang might have approached the bus at dawn rather than in the dead of night. The driver might have seen him. Another Samaritan might have noticed him sooner and called an ambulance in time to save his life.

Maybe, Dillon reasoned, if Carmel had been on Central time instead of Eastern, Ziang—who emigrated from China with his family just two years earlier—would not have died. “I thought, this is terrible,” she recalls. “It’s such a tragedy. And the tragedy for the parents is that they came here to give him the best. And because of our sunlight schedule, he’s dead.”

Dillon’s cause-and-effect conclusion seems a leap, perhaps, but she came by it honestly. When she was growing up on a farm outside of Noblesville, in the 1950s, most Hoosiers observed Central time. In those days, dawn arrived earlier than it does now; she remembers that distinctly because her morning chores included tending the livestock, which she made a point of doing in daylight. “I was afraid to go out to the barn in the dark,” she says. “I would get up at about a quarter to 7, and it was never dark.”

Some 60 years later, Ziang Ke’s bus-stop death awakened Dillon to the fact that, unlike her own childhood, most Indiana kids now start their days in darkness. And suddenly “it just came together” for her: Indiana is in the wrong time zone. And she should do something about it.

If time is relative, as Einstein taught the world a hundred years ago, then it is particularly so in Indiana. Presently, it is one of 13 states with multiple time zones. But the other 12 have two time zones because they’re wide. Indiana is just funky. It is, in effect, the only state with three time zones, because the Central is divided between two pockets in far corners of the state, separated by nearly 300 miles of Eastern. This curious phenomenon accommodates counties in the southwest and northwest, near the border of Illinois, a Central-time state.

And here’s a paradox that Einstein himself might have appreciated: The fact that most of Indiana lies in the Eastern time zone has everything to do with geography and also nothing at all. The imaginary boundary separating Eastern from Central is loosely based on the line of 82.5 degrees longitude, which bisects Ohio. If the time-zone boundary truly conformed to the guideline, all of Indiana would easily fall to the west of it and thus be on Central time, end of discussion. Indeed, much as Sue Dillon remembers, majorities of Hoosiers followed Central time for long stretches after railroad companies first introduced time zones in 1883.

The shift from Central to Eastern began in the middle part of the 20th century and proceeded in starts and stops. In 1949, after hours of knock-down-drag-out debate, the General Assembly passed a bill making Central the state’s official time zone, over the strong objection of urban legislators who favored Eastern, or “fast time.” In 1956, a non-binding statewide referendum put the time question directly to voters, who expressed a preference for Central over Eastern by a slim margin. The Assembly codified Indiana’s observance of Central time the following year, and allowed individual communities to observe daylight-saving time if they chose. Eastern time was outlawed.

That last provision proved unpopular, so the Assembly repealed it in 1961 and eventually punted the time-zone issue to the federal government and the Uniform Time Act of 1966. In a decision reminiscent of King Solomon’s biblical ruling that a baby be cut in half to satisfy two competing motherhood claims, the feds drew a new Eastern–Central boundary down the middle of the state, which “created unique problems for the State of Indiana,” wrote a clearly annoyed Governor Roger Branigin in a formal entreaty to the U.S. Department of Transportation, noting that the arrangement did “not permit an observance of the time patterns historically adhered to in this state, split as it is by a time zone.” However, placing the entire state in Eastern, he continued, would “seriously disrupt the activities of Indiana citizens” living in the western part of the state, while “the observance of Central time would insure normal daylight and darkness hours.”

Despite Governor Branigin’s wishes, in 1972 the USDOT, at the request of the General Assembly, agreed that most of Indiana would observe Eastern time and ignore DST, while a few counties in the northwest and southwest would follow Central time and DST, putting them in sync with Chicago year-round and Indianapolis in the summertime. The compromise held until 2005, by which time Indiana was one of only three states still refusing to observe DST.

After dogged efforts by Governor Mitch Daniels and the business community—who argued that not changing our clocks in March and November confused outsiders—Indiana got on board with saving daylight. In all the hubbub over DST, however, the matter of whether or not Indiana should remain in the Eastern time zone went largely unquestioned. “The ‘other’ discussion, which in my mind was never really completed, was which time zone should we be on,” says State Representative Jeff Thompson, R-Lizton. “We kind of ended up in the Eastern by default. It has never been really studied and analyzed on a long-term basis.”

For Sue Dillon, the transition from personal conviction to public crusade was a fairly easy one. After college, she moved back to Noblesville to teach elementary school, and in 1985, she and her husband moved to Carmel. While their new home was under construction, Dillon learned that the Carmel Plan Commission was poised to rezone property at a nearby intersection so a developer could erect a six-story office building. Worried the plan would create traffic and diminish the residential character of the area, she banded together with neighbors to fight the proposal—and won.

“We kind of ended up in the Eastern by default,” says State Rep. Jeff Thompson.

In the process, Dillon “got a civics lesson” and learned that grassroots activism could actually produce results. A tree lover and environmentalist, she helped establish Citizens for Greenspace in Carmel, which pressured developers and government officials to include quality-of-life features in new projects. She spent 15 years on the Carmel-Clay Parks Board, seven as its president, and became a more or less full-time community organizer.

In 2009, what Dillon viewed as the preventable bus-stop death of Ziang Ke spurred her to set her sights higher. She established the Central Time Coalition in an effort to raise awareness of the time-zone issue and influence state lawmakers. Membership swelled to almost 2,000 people, and not just fogies, cranks, and farmers (the latter have long favored Central time because it means more sunlight for morning fieldwork). The coalition’s advisory board is loaded with community leaders, particularly in the area of public education—school-board members, top school administrators, and, appropriately enough, the president of the Indiana State School Bus Drivers Association. The list also includes two state senators and three state representatives.

The crux of the Central Time Coalition’s position is this: Because Indiana is the second-westernmost state in the Eastern time zone (after Michigan’s Upper Penninsula), the sun comes up later here than almost anywhere else in the country. As a consequence, many Hoosiers, children in particular, start their day before daylight, which, the coalition argues, adversely impacts public health and safety.

Studies have indeed shown that darkness can produce symptoms of seasonal affective disorder, including depression and lack of focus. Last year, for example, the American Academy of Pediatrics issued a recommendation urging “high schools and middle schools to aim for start times no earlier than 8:30 a.m. to allow students the opportunity to achieve optimal levels of sleep (8.5–9.5 hours) and to improve physical and mental health, safety, academic performance, and quality of life.” But because the findings were based on sunlight schedules, following the AAP’s recommendation in Indiana, located as it is at the far western edge of the Eastern zone, would require school start times of 9:30 or after—too late to be practical with bus scheduling and afterschool activities.

In Dillon’s estimation, dragging kids out of bed well before sunrise has proven deadly, and she points to some eye-opening statistics to bolster her case. In recent years, Indiana has led the nation in fatalities among 16- and 17-year-old drivers and had the second-highest rate of high-school students attempting suicide. Since 2007, at least six Indiana children have died as a result of being struck by vehicles in early morning darkness and at least 19 more have been seriously injured. At the very least, Dillon argues, kids who arrive at the classroom drowsy make for poor pupils. “We can have all the talk we want about how to improve education,” she says, “but until we make the sunlight schedule compatible with learning, it’s like their hands are tied behind their back.”

Even armed with such kids-first arguments, Dillon has learned that taking on the Statehouse is a more daunting prospect than browbeating local commissioners. Rep. Thompson, a retired science teacher and reliable Central Time Coalition ally, has introduced measures to bring the time-zone issue up for study several times in the General Assembly since 2010. So far—despite a coalition petition with more than 25,000 signatures and endorsement from 50 public schools—the measure has had a hearing only once, when a committee chairman agreed to allow debate but only with the understanding that he would not let the committee vote to move it on to the House floor.

In Dillon’s estimation, dragging kids out of the bed well before sunrise has proven deadly.

In every other session, committee chairpersons, no doubt loath to revisit the bareknuckle days of time debate, have scuttled Thompson’s proposals. He thinks he will probably introduce the measure again when the Assembly reconvenes in January, even though he maintains realistic expectations for the legislative outcome. “It won’t be an easy discussion if you really get serious about trying to change things,” says Thompson. “To say it’s going to make a huge difference in student performance—you probably can’t say that. Is it going to make a huge difference in economic development? Probably not either. Will it make a difference? Yes. But for the difference you’re looking at, is it worth all the political capital you may spend?”

The status quo appears not to bother the better part of Indiana’s political and business classes, who, 10 years on, seem content finally to have put the DST fight behind them. “It’s not an active topic of discussion,” says Kevin Brinegar, president of the Indiana Chamber of Commerce, which lobbies on behalf of companies. The Chamber represents close to 26,000 members and customers around the state, and according to Brinegar, they came down 2 to 1 in favor of Eastern time when his organization surveyed them in 2005. “In the business community’s eyes, this issue is settled, and it’s settled appropriately,” he says.

The reasons for this preference for Eastern time, commonly chalked up to aligning with East Coast financial markets and trading partners, are more anecdotal than quantifiable. “There is a good bit more research related to daylight-saving time than time zones as such,” says Jerry Conover, director of the Indiana Business Research Center at IU’s Kelley School of Business. To his knowledge, few if any up-to-date studies have addressed the extent to which the time zone affects business and the economy in the state. “Logically you could argue that businesses in a particular area just want to be on the same time schedule as other businesses they do business with,” he says.

In a recent press release announcing plans to locate a new U.S. headquarters in Indianapolis, an executive at Emarsys, an Austria-based digital marketing company, specifically cited Eastern time as a factor in the company’s decision. “When we operate across the globe and then on both coasts here in the U.S., trying to balance when we can collaborate on the same calls is important to us,” says Emarsys president of the Americas Sean Brady. “With the majority of our offices overseas in Europe and Asia, it was more important to be on Eastern time.” According to Chris Gahl, vice president of marketing for Visit Indy, which works to attract convention business to the city, being on Eastern time allows him and other reps to tell clients “we’re the same as New York” when they ask what time it is in Indianapolis. On the other hand, other large Indianapolis-based companies with global operations, contacted by IM, seem to regard Indiana’s time zone as a nonfactor; a spokesperson for Dow AgroSciences described the firm as “time-zone agnostic,” noting that their main customers, farmers, “work dawn to dusk” no matter where they’re located.

Still, the coalition faces inertia not only from time-weary lawmakers and the business lobby, but also a large federal bureaucracy. Even if the General Assembly were to pass a resolution calling for Central time, the U.S. Department of Transportation would make the final ruling on Indiana’s time zone, and only after county-by-county hearings on the matter.

Dillon, for one, seems determined to persevere. “If the facts are friendly, you stick with it,” she says. The facts might indeed be on her side, even if time is not.