Let's dispel any potential misconception right up front that Baltimore suffers from an abundance of motorists who are excessively skilled at parallel parking. One can drive a lifetime in the suburbs without parking one's car alongside a curb, but in the city, that's an ability that comes in pretty handy. Who among us has not been stuck in traffic because some clown on Charles Street can't fit a 15-foot-long vehicle in a 17-foot space?
Yet the Maryland Motor Vehicle Administration announced this week that henceforth parallel parking is no longer part of the driving portion of the driver's license test. A 16-year-old can now acquire a license without those endless hours maneuvering Dad's Camry between a set of buckets and tomato stakes in the local high school parking lot.
The MVA is a little squishy on exactly why this is going on here, attributing the choice to a "reassessment" of the test and eliminating "redundancy" within it. The driving test already includes what's known as the "reverse two-point turnaround," which simulates backing into a parking space — a move that is far easier than parallel parking but engages similar skills. That the change is likely to cause fewer people to fail — and thus reduce the lines at MVA testing centers as fewer people will need to retake the test — probably played in a role in the decision as well.
Across Maryland, one can almost hear the collective sigh of relief from teenagers and probably from quite a few parents and guardians. After all, somebody has to be there for those practice hours. Never mind that statistics aren't available to document the point: We all know that parallel parking has always been the biggest obstacle to obtaining one's license in this state. You don't see kids practicing three-point turns or reverse two-point turnarounds again, again and again while an exasperated adult bites his or her tongue.
Will safety suffer as a result? Probably not. The act of parallel parking is rarely a direct threat to human existence. A drop in skill levels might flood local auto repair shops with scraped fenders and damaged tires, but it probably won't put drivers in the hospital (aside from the inevitable road rage incidents it might provoke). If we're lucky, they'll use the newly freed time in driver's ed class to teach kids not to text and drive. Those who move to Baltimore or some other city will just have to get their practice on real streets with real parking spaces while the rest of us sit and watch as they choose too steep or shallow an angle.
Nonetheless, we can't help mourning this change. Sure, a lot of states don't test for parallel parking either, but where's the pride, Maryland? Are we past the days when bragging rights — the speed and proximity to the curb (without touching) of a driver's parallel parking — counted for something? Maybe the whole thing is too easy. Perhaps the test should have required drivers to parallel park a standard transmission car on a steep hill. Then we could have bragged that we produced the best drivers in the nation. Now, we'll just say we graduate drivers who have a "common core" of skills.
Whether we expect too much or not enough from young people these days seems to be an open question. At school, they face a barrage of standardized tests. But we also seem to be constantly providing them with training wheels — a millennial generation with a strong sense of entitlement and an over-reliance on technology. Learn to parallel park? They'd rather wait for the Google cars that drive themselves — a technology that's already entered the testing phase, by the way. It's all the talk on Snapchat.
Mark our words, the next step will be for cities to convert all parallel parking spaces into angled-space parking like in Hampden. It will soon become a forgotten skill like changing typewriter ribbons, working a slide rule or expressing displeasure without swearing. (Later, it will be rediscovered and we will witness a "craft" movement in which "artisanal," eco-friendly parallel parking becomes all the rage.) But damn, that makes us sound old. At least it's something to ponder while watching some guy in a Kia back into a light pole in Fells Point.