Back when I worked in Los Angeles, my company entertained a customer delegation from Sweden. Our offices overlooked the 405 Freeway at one of its widest spots, with eight lanes in both directions.
The Swedes spent the meeting breaks on the first day staring down at the freeway in evident fascination. When I asked why, one of them said: "It's incredible to see so many cars going so fast without hitting each other."
When I later visited Stockholm, I better understood their amazement. Compared to Californians, Swedes handle their cars as if they learned to drive in a carnival bumper car ride.
There are places with worse drivers, of course. Any taxi ride in Lisbon, for example, is a white knuckler. And don't even get me started with Beijing, where the concept of "stay in your own lane" never appears to have caught on.
Some regions of the United States are famous for lousy driving, too. Boston drivers, for instance, are notorious for ignoring pedestrians, while Florida drivers get WAY more speeding tickets than drivers in any other state.
In my observation, California drivers are among the best in the world, perhaps because the state has so many freeway shootings, which provide incentive to follow the rules. Not that that's a good thing but... just sayin'.
This is not to say that California is a particularly safe place to drive. Flying bullets aside, the state has the second-highest number of yearly road deaths per 100,000 drivers (7.9). However, as my Swedish customers pointed out, were California drivers were not so savvy, the insane density of traffic be a daily demolition derby.
I learned to drive in Los Angeles and commuted there for 12 years, so I have a pretty good idea of the "rules of the road" which, if more widely followed elsewhere, would make driving a more pleasant (or at least saner) experience everywhere else. Here's my list:
1. Honk to warn, not to comment.
Your car horn is there to keep you safe, not to provide a vent for your frustration. There are only two reasons to use the horn: 1) to alert another driver that they're missing something or 2) to call attention to your presence, to avoid a collision.
The "alert" honk is the shortest tap possible and the "attention" honk is held for about a second; anything longer is providing your opinion, which increases the chance of a road rage incident and adds to noise pollution.
2. Never try the "zipper" merge.
A recent Inc.com post pointed out that, if two lanes are merging into one, it makes more mathematical sense to "zipper merge" which means letting lanes fill up and then merging at the last possible moment. However, most drivers aren't mathematicians.
Try this zipper stunt in stop-and-go Los Angeles traffic and you'll get locked out of the merge, because the drivers of the queued cars will drive bumper-to-bumper to lock you out. In every case, you'll see the "place in line" inch past long before a driver lets you in.
3. Double back rather than cut in.
If you are planning to exit a freeway but don't realize until too late that the clogged right lane consists of cars queued for that exit, do not try to cut into the line. If you do, you will no only get locked out but your stopped car will be sitting in the flow of traffic.
Rather than create a road hazard, resign yourself to the fact you're going to be late, drive to the next exit and double back. Note: outrageously attractive females can and will jump the queue, because some dude always lets them in. (This is California, after all.)
4. Move with the speed of traffic.
If the posted speed is 55 MPH and traffic is moving at 70 MPH, it's passive-aggressive and stupid to drive 55 MPH. Traffic laws are there to keep you safe; they're not pettifoggery to be followed to the letter.
While I'm on the subject of traffic, when I moved from California to New Hampshire, I was astounded at the amount of tailgating, even when the roads were slippery with ice and snow. Usually (but not always) the tailgater is a hammerhead in a pick-up truck.
6. Keep thy finger to thyself.
Sorry, but unless you've got a perfect driving record and have never--not once--done something unexpected or stupid while driving, you don't have the right to direct an obscenity at anybody else.
More important, flipping a bird can escalate into serious road rage. Once I was driving on Western Blvd. (under the Hollywood sign) and a guy got out of his car at the stoplight and cold-cocked a driver who'd flipped him off and (unwisely) left the window open. Ouch!
7. No surprises, ever.
This is really more of a guiding principle than a specific rule. Driving safely means avoiding any action or behavior that's out-of-the-ordinary. The more predictable everyone is, the faster everyone will get to where they want to go, and in one piece.
You see, most drivers (especially commuters) are on "automatic" and thus may do something stupid (like hitting the accelerator rather than the brake) if they're startled by something unexpected.