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Some milestone birthdays don't have the significance they used to [Commentary]

It seems like some of the biggest milestone birthdays really aren't so much anymore.

When I was growing up, after becoming a teenager, turning 16 was the next big birthday. For many, turning 16 brought a new type of freedom – we could get our driver's licenses. I can remember some of my friends going out the day of their Sweet 16th and heading to the MVA for their new licenses, the first one that mean they were on their way to becoming adults.

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It's just small,2-by-3-inch, laminated card, but to a 16-year-old, it was significant. No more relying on Mom and Dad to cart us around all the time, though that only applied if we had access to a car. It meant we had responsibility – to be safe, to operate a huge piece of potentially deadly equipment, to conduct ourselves properly.

It was a rite of passage.

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(I didn't get my driver's license until after I turned 17. My parents had certain grade requirements that I didn't meet until then; I guess the milestone wasn't that big of a deal to me.)

But changes to Maryland driving laws mean Maryland teenagers can't leave school early to go take the test and, if they pass, get that coveted little card, which to me makes it seem like the 16th birthday has lost some of its luster.

A driver's license can't be obtained until someone has their learner's permit for at least nine months. If a learner's permit can't be obtained until three months before a person's 16th birthday, that means they can't a driver's license until they're at least 16 years and six months.

Another milestone birthday may not be quite what it once was, either, at least in Maryland.

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The state changed the way it renews driver's licenses, and because of the new process, people turning 21 may not be able to go out to a bar or liquor store on their 21st birthday and be sold an alcoholic beverage.

Bars, restaurant and liquor store owners and employees have been told over and over and over again, and then told some more, that people with a vertical driver's license shouldn't be served a drink, because it means they're not 21.

As of April 1, however, that may not apply, thanks to how the Maryland Motor Vehicle Administration is handling driver's license renewals.

"In order to increase customer service and decrease in-person wait times, effective April 1, 2014, customers who are under the age of 40 and eligible to renew by web, mail or MVA Kiosk MUST use one of these methods to process their transaction. In-person renewals for these customers will no longer be processed at a MVA Branch Office. You can renew your non-commercial driver's license online at Online Driver's License Renewal," according to its website.

Turning 21 has always been a big deal. While legally you become an adult at 18, there's still one thing you can't do: have an alcoholic drink. So turning 21 is almost like a rite of passage. It's not about getting drunk, it's about being able to have a drink if you want one, to be able to take part in a previously off-limits social scene.

Like getting a driver's license, turning 21 also comes with responsibility. Knowing that if you're going to have a drink, you can't drive, because it impairs your senses, slows response times, and makes that deadly weapon that is an automobile even more dangerous.

I was a junior in college when I turned 21. I never had a fake ID, I didn't go to bars. I had my fair share of drinks before I turned 21, but there was still something about that birthday that was a big deal.

Many of my friends would go out at midnight, the minute they turned 21. The night of my 21st birthday, I had an exam, so I was studying when the date turned from Feb. 10 to Feb. 11. It didn't matter, really – I just went out with my already-21 friends that night.

It can take up to a week for that new, horizontal driver's license to come in the mail after it's renewed online, a week after the 21st birthday. Although someone can print out temporary proof of the license application, they're not being accepted at a number of Harford bars, including Looney's and Main Street Tower, where servers are trained to only accept horizontal licenses, issued to those over 21, and automatically reject customers with vertical licenses.

The bar owners and employees in Harford County have a huge responsibility in carding their patrons. Many have been adamant about only taking a horizontal license; and there's no reason they should change their policies now.

It stinks for the person turning 21. And it's another milestone birthday celebration that will just have to be delayed until that pretty new horizontal driver's license comes in the mail a few days later.

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