Update: Going well. I still have trouble switching lanes. When I look out my window its hard for to judge when its safe or not so I tend to wait longer than normal.
Your mirrors will tell you everything you need to know and allow you to prepare well in advance. Looking out the window is only done to double check what you already know to be true. You will get better at judgement with time. When changing lanes, I like to categorize the vehicle I want to pass into one of three different categories:
A) Super slow
They are the tourist, elderly, overly cautious, or lost variety. They want to hangout back there in the distance, holding up traffic. Car A is the one that people almost cutoff thinking that the wide space left open is a spot for the taking rather than a safety space bubble. Depending on how low the speed is, Car A can almost be a hazard even if they think they're being safe.
It is usually safe to pass them - just watch to make sure they don't speed up.
These cars are in a hurry. Maybe they broke their non-driving arm and decided it would be better to drive to the emergency room rather than have an ambulance take them! Maybe they are within minutes of being late to a life changing interview for a job, which if obtained would allow them to pack their bags and leave their small uneventful town that they've lived in all their life. Whatever the reason, Car B is a speed demon - the size of their vehicle will get bigger and bigger in your mirror until the shape fills the mirror completely. To get in front of them would be like volunteering to stand in front of a moving steamroller.
Wait until they pass before switching into their lane. Do not attempt to race them - leapfrogging will not work with them.
Of course life isn't so black and white and Car C may vary anywhere between A and B. The key with them is to use your mirrors smartly and defensively. Rather than wait until the last minute to see if it's clear, ideally you would have been keeping an eye on them (and others) occasionally - every so often glancing up at the rear view and side view mirrors to characterize not only the flow of traffic as a whole, but each nearby vehicle as an individual. Looking into the mirrors is not just done when you want to move over - it is done frequently every so often to build up a situational awareness. Think of driving as a sport where the objective is to make it to your destination safely and to keep others safe as well. Your actions impact other people. Other people's actions impact you. Defensive driving is about maneuvering in such a way that you keep everyone, including yourself, safe. It's about being courteous because doing so mitigates road rage, maintains the flow of traffic and protects you. It's about not just thinking about what you need to do for you but what needs to be done to not disrupt the flow.
DO NOT HEAVILY AND EXCESSIVELY USE YOUR BRAKES ALL THE TIME.
There are many times when simply letting your foot off the gas petal is more effective at slowing down. Practice the two different ways of slowing down in a manner that is conducive to traffic flow. When someone brakes, it could indicate that there is an upcoming hazard (kids playing, deer running across the street, an upturned nail, a pothole etc.), a lane change, or a turn. Every time you break, the driver behind you must prepare for those things that are unexpected. There is another way to slow down - if it is safe to do, take your foot of the brake to slow down instead. And if a heavy break user is in front of you, change lanes.
If a light turns orange and has been so for quite some time, then stop on red. Red light runners only end up T-boning at the intersection.
If you're in heavy traffic that clogs the streets and you're approaching a red light, make sure you're not blocking anyone when you stop. There are even signs that warn not to block intersections.
If it's green but there is no room on the other side for your car, just sit there. No one wants a trail of cars to block the intersection. I've had times where I had to wait several minutes at the red because an accident up ahead held traffic back and filled up all the empty space. I just went once there was finally a spot I could drive into on the other side.
If you're close to the intersection and the light quickly turns from green to orange, just drive through. If you stop you may get hit from behind by the person who thought you would keep going. The same applies to ramps with yield signs at the end that merge onto traffic. If there is more than enough space to safely go forward then do so, otherwise the person behind you may run into you (as someone who works in allied health, I know that this scenario is what commonly brings people into the physical therapy office - they need to have their resulting back pain treated).
Give people enough time to respond to the choices you make on the road. Signal when turning. Don't take too long to turn but don't go so fast that you flip over
If you're stopped
at a red light and it finally turns green, don't be so quick to stomp on the gas. Often times people run the light. There's no harm in waiting a few seconds to look both ways before accelerating again - you all were waiting at the red light anyway - why not add a few more seconds before taking off like a rocket launcher? I encountered many instances where I was waiting these few extra seconds and three cars drove through or a HUGE truck came hurtling pass.
Work with the flow of traffic. Sometimes you will need to speed up to get in front of someone. At the same time, there are moments where slowing down to get behind someone is equally important. The goal is NOT to select a speed and stay that way the whole time. Rather you choose the speed that is most appropriate at the moment. Also be mindful of who is ahead of you and behind you when you make your decision to slow down or speed up for a lane change. It's kind of like a jigsaw puzzle except all the pieces are moving about.
Look ahead for and avoid nails, roadkill, glass and other debris
I did not get my license in high school like so many other fearless teens. I earned it in college and relied on my parents until then. In the beginning I was too afraid to cross the traffic intersection that led out of my neighborhood. I did not want to leave the parking lot. Even the main road coursing its way through my neighborhood was too much because there literally were twists and turns throughout the whole path!
I think I read that it takes 5 years to be completely comfortable with driving. I think my first job (which required driving most of the time in a large truck) helped to shorten that time and I reached that level of comfort a bit quicker. The first day behind the wheel I was slightly shaking involuntarily even after stepping out. I could only do 10 minutes that day. It is thanks to the grace of Jesus Christ that I kept that job for so long!
. For reasons I won't go into here, prayer from myself and a large group of church members also helped. For those agnostics out there- read what the gospel is and investigate whether Jesus is for you too!
I used to see driving as a nightmare - and one day after failing every step of the way I just walked to my bed and fell face down into a collapsed heap of depression for the rest of that day.
But now I feel like driving is something to enjoy even with all the headaches. I've built up the patience needed handle things calmly no matter the weather or crowed conditions because I've allowed myself get behind the wheel hundreds of times in all sorts of situations. Over and over, choosing to drive was like ripping off hairs with hot wax. I did not want to do it. But now I have a trust in my own abilities the same way an experienced chess player doesn't sweat because they have hours upon hours of pattern recognition and strategies stored up in their mind.
Be that chess player. Start to accumulate as much experience as you can so that you develop your own pattern recognition with the road. Become the driver, who at anytime, can pull out the appropriate defensive driving strategy from the countless storage closets you have set up in your mind!
Don't give up! That phrase sounds cheesy especially knowing that I wanted to myself so many times before but it's the best thing you can do for yourself! The moment we as a nation decided to go with a highway system over the railroad was the day that made not giving up on driving our only option.