Beyond acquiring basic car control skills -- and exercising good judgment behind the wheel -- there are a few basic rules for safe driving that everyone should know -- and follow:
Don't tailgate: Crowding the car ahead of you makes it more likely you'll smash into it if the driver should suddenly brake. Modern safety devices such as anti-lock brakes and traction control don't trump physics.
Obey the three second rule: Every driver should know and heed the three second rule: When the vehicle ahead of you passes a fixed object (such as a tree or telephone pole) slowly count "one thousand, two one thousand, three one thousand." If you reach the object before completing the count, you're following too closely. Double your following distance (to six seconds) in poor weather.
Use turn signals: Failing to signal your intentions to other motorists is always dangerous -- as well as discourteous. Other motorists are not psychic; they can't guess that you are planning on making a right turn -- or about to move into the next lane. Signaling is especially important for the safety of motorcyclists, bicyclists and pedestrians, too. If they are in your blind spot and you just assume no one's there and execute a maneuver without signaling first, these folks will get no advance warning -- and will suffer the most if you strike them.
Don't impede the flow of traffic: Driving too slowly can be more dangerous than driving a little faster than the posted limit. In a high-density situation, with many others vehicles sharing the road, a dawdler creates what amounts to a rolling roadblock. Traffic snarls; motorists jockey for position -- the smooth flow of cars is interrupted. Try to drive with the flow of traffic -- and if the car behind you clearly wishes to go faster, the best thing to do is let it get by, whether you are "doing the limit" already or not. The other driver may have an emergency you are unaware of -- and in any event, it is simply safer and more courteous to yield to faster-moving traffic. Leave enforcement of speed limits to the police.
Maintain appropriate speed: Speed, as such, doesn't kill. If it did, airliners traveling at 500 mph would have the highest accident/fatality rates of any form of transportation. But air travel is in fact much safer than driving -- and few cars travel at 500 mph. The problem is inappropriate speed. For example, while it may be perfectly legal to drive 65 mph on the highway, if you don't slow down when it's raining heavily (or snowing) and your visibility as well as your car's stopping ability are reduced -- you increase your chances of having an accident. Similarly, if you are driving an unfamiliar road, especially a country road with many blind curves, you may not be able to negotiate the road at the same speed a local might with equal safety. Use your judgment -- and adjust speed to match conditions and your comfort level.
Plan ahead/use your mirrors: Anticipate the need to brake or make lane changes, etc. by constantly scanning your driving environment and watching the actions of other drivers, pedestrians and so on. This way, it's less likely you'll need to jam on the brakes -- or make sudden steering changes -- to avoid problems. The best drivers always maintain "situational awareness" -- where other cars are in relation to their vehicle, what's coming up ahead -- and what's happening on either side of them and behind them. Use your mirrors -- frequently.
Drive within your limits, the limits set by conditions and the limits of your vehicle: SUVs are not as equipped as sporty cars to travel safely at higher speeds -- and sporty cars tend to get skittish much more readily when it snows. Older vehicles lacking modern tires or traction/stability enhancers don't have the same built-in edge as late model cars with those features. You'll need more time to slow down safely; the older car will also go into a skid with less provocation than a newer car equipped with an electronic stability aid. Don't drive faster than you -- or your vehicle -- can drive safely, with ample "cushion" of time and space to make corrections and react to changing conditions and other motorists.
If you have the desire to become an even better driver -- and learn how to handle emergency situations such as panic braking and loss of vehicle control -- you may want to attend a driving school where you'll learn about vehicle handling dynamics on a closed course track under expert supervision. Many of these classes are taught by former race car drivers such as Bob Bondurant -- and while not inexpensive, they pay in heightened ability behind the wheel that could save your life down the road.
Bob Bondurant School of High Performance Driving: (1-800-842-7223) Phoenix, AZ. Advanced Teenage Driving (3 days, $3,095), Highway Survival Training (1 day, $1,175), High Performance Driving (2 days, $2,195).
Skip Barber Driving School: (1-800-221-1131) CA and CT. One or two-day programs, $995-$1,295.
Master Drive Driver Training School: (1-719-260-0999) Denver, CO. Teen, senior and high-performance courses (call for prices, dates and availability).