What actions and non-actions behind the wheel make a driver an unsafe driver? Being unsafe doesn’t have to mean blazing past traffic on the right-hand shoulder, not wearing a seatbelt or not using your lights in dark or blinding rain. In fact, it can be doing exactly what you do every time you take the wheel.
If you talk with experts — professional drivers, instructors, safety experts, etc. — you'll find a number of common themes that are common to bad drivers of all ages and descriptions. These include:
Not staying aware. If you don't know what's going on behind you, beside you, and coming up ahead, it's hard to anticipate what other drivers (or kids, animals, etc.) might do in time to act preemptively rather than react after something's already started to happen. At 60 mph, a second or two can be the difference between having an accident and not having one. Pay attention to your mirrors, the traffic around you and what's happening on the road and you'll vastly improve your chances of avoiding situations that end up in crunched fenders (or worse).
Not watching speed. The classic example here is the driver who pulls out from a side road in front of traffic without giving himself adequate time to bring his car up to the speed of traffic, forcing other drivers to brake suddenly (or swerve) to avoid striking him. Some drivers are naturally better at estimating the speed/distance of other vehicles in relation to their own - but a good rule of thumb is if you have any doubt about your ability to safely pull into an intersection, wait. It's better to lose a minute or even two than your life or someone else's.
Not being smooth. Expert drivers avoid abrupt inputs such as braking late (and therefore harder than necessary) and jerking the steering wheel abruptly. They make controlled, progressive inputs. Violent maneuvering throws a car's mass around and unsettles its balance; it makes loss of control much more likely, especially with an average or below average driver behind the wheel. Good drivers anticipate the need to brake and turn, which means they are less likely to find themselves having to use over-aggressive inputs to slow the car or make a turn safely without (for example) crossing over the double-yellow line.
Not going with the flow. Good drivers have one habit in common - they don't obstruct the flow of traffic by adamantly driving at or below the posted speed limit when it's clear other cars (and traffic in general) is moving faster. Such drivers mistakenly believe they're in the right, legally speaking ("I'm doing the speed limit!") but in fact they are impeding the flow of traffic, which is also illegal in most states. Safe drivers try to drive within 5 mph of the prevailing speed of the cars around them, and yield to faster-moving traffic if they're uncomfortable about keeping up with the pace or driving a few mph faster than the posted limit.
Not practicing lane courtesy. Good drivers use the far left, or passing lane, for just that - passing. If you're not overtaking another car or driving slightly faster than the prevailing flow of traffic, you should not be in the left lane. Period. Drivers who plant themselves in the far left lane and set their cruise control are both aggravating and dangerous, because they force other drivers to pass on the right and create unsafe "speed variance" that disrupts the natural flow of traffic. One reason the German autobahns are so safe compared to
Not maintaining a safe following distance. Good drivers always leave an "envelope" of space between their car and the cars ahead. They never tailgate. Following too closely doesn't leave an adequate cushion of space to brake in time to avoid a rear-end collision should the car ahead slow suddenly. In addition, "riding the bumper" of the car ahead ratchets up tension, making the other driver nervous and thus more likely to make an error that could result in a collision. It also leads to road rage — and in today's world, that can end up involving consequences far more serious than a roadside fist-fight. There's no excuse for tailgating, ever. Don't do it.
Not knowing the limits. A good example here is the older driver with poor night vision who nonetheless continues to drive after dark. Or the driver who tends to "fall asleep at the wheel" but still insists on driving solo for long stretches without stopping for coffee (or a an evening's rest in a hotel). There's also the reckless driver (any age, any sex) who thinks he's got the skill of Michael Schumacher but who in fact has no real training and would have trouble making it through the cones on a basic SCCA circuit. As with almost anything else in life, getting in over your head can get you into real trouble. But in a car doing 80 mph, you may not get a "do over."