In this paper, we evaluate and improve the performance of the medium-access control (MAC) protocol for safety applications in a dedicated short-range communication (DSRC) environment. We first develop an analytical model to study the IEEE 802.11 distributed coordination function (DCF) MAC protocol that has been adopted by the IEEE 802.11p standard for DSRC. Explicit expressions are derived for the mean and standard deviation of the packet delay, as well as for the packet delivery ratio (PDR) at the MAC layer in an unsaturated network formed by moving vehicles on a highway. The proposed model is validated using extensive simulations, and its superior accuracy is compared with that of other existing models is demonstrated. Insights gained from our model reveal that the principal reason for the low PDR of the DCF protocol is packet collision due to transmissions from hidden terminals. We then present a novel protocol based on the DCF that uses an out-of-band busy tone as a negative acknowledgment to provide an efficient solution to the aforementioned problem. We extend our analytical model to the enhanced protocol and show that it preserves predictive accuracy. Most importantly, our numerical experiments confirm that the enhanced protocol improves the PDR by up to 10% and increases the supported vehicle density by up to two times for a range of packet arrival rates while maintaining the delay below the required threshold level.