The US in Words #3: Buckle Up (and Other Adventures Driving in America)

The third in a series looking at U.S. life and culture through its idioms.  View previous entries.

To buckle up = to put on a seat belt

Because I teach English as a Foreign Language, and I’ve been constantly improving my language skills for over 20 years, I have always been pretty confident about my English.  But guess what? When I arrived in Pennsylvania I quickly found that my English classes back home had left me unprepared for certain tasks – like driving.

Buckle up sign

On my very first day, someone from the university had picked me and my roommates up at the airport and was driving us to Selinsgrove when I saw a big sign on the road that said “Buckle up! It’s the law.” I had no idea what buckle up was, so I asked the person who was giving us a ride. She explained it meant to fasten your seat belt.

Since then, I have found the slogan “buckle up for the next million miles” in many spots along the roads of Pennsylvania.

This was the first of many encounters with traffic signals, road signs, GPS devices, safe-driving exams and many others, all of which have proved that no matter how much I’ve studied the language, there are certain things I could never learn without living in the culture.

Actually, it was a whole new experience to go out driving here for the first time. In Uruguay we drive manual cars, so at first I didn’t even know what to do with my right hand and left foot in an automatic!

But on top of that, I have had to handle road signs that I didn’t fully understand, or sometimes didn’t understand at all!  Some of the strangest expressions I have found driving around Pennsylvania are:

Brake Retarder Prohibition – I had to do some research for this one! Apparently, some trucks need a special device called a “brake retarder” in order to stop or slow down on certain road conditions. This system is extremely loud, so in Pennsylvania it is forbidden to use it around populated areas.

DUI signDUI – This stands for “Driving Under the Influence (of alcohol or drugs),” and it is illegal in the U.S., so there are signs along the road warning people against doing it.  If you’re pulled over by the police for suspicion of DUI, they may have you perform a series of field sobriety tests (FSTs), like standing on one leg, to determine whether to arrest you.

I found out after asking some American friends that many of them refuse to perform these tests, since there’s research showing that they are not always accurate, but under Pennsylvania law if you refuse the test you will have your license suspended for a year.

Carpooling – I knew what carpooling was (when people traveling to the same place go in the same car), but I didn’t expect to see it on a road sign. There’s no law about carpooling, but the freeway here is packed with signs promoting car-sharing among inhabitants of a certain area, for cost-effectiveness and environmental purposes.<

Fender bender – This one was a real mystery. Near my house, there’s a sign on the road that reads, “Fender Bender?” And that’s it – it doesn’t say anything else. I found out a fender bender is a minor car accident, named because the part of the car that often gets damaged is the fender (the part around the wheels). But even after learning that, I thought it was really strange for a road sign to just pose the question but not provide any help with the answer. To this date, nobody around me has been able to tell me whether there’s supposed to be a phone number attached to the sign or anything like that. As I said – a mystery.

Another interesting expression that I learned about driving is designated driver, or DD. The expression can be used to describe a person who will be in charge of leading the way, making decisions about what road to take, etc., but most people use it to refer to the person who will do the driving while everybody else is drinking. The designated driver is the person who stays sober. Yes, that’s the way it is. I guess they are playing it safe, being very reasonable, and also avoiding having to go through those tedious DUI roadside tests later on.

Bottom line is, traveling around the U.S. by car made me stop to think why I was having so much trouble with my English and what I could do to make it better. The best strategy I could find was jotting down the words I didn’t understand, asking friends, and researching on the internet.

Language learners not only learn a language when they study, they also pick up a lot of strategies (many times, unconsciously) that will come in very handy when they encounter situations where the language seems completely different from the one they’ve been learning. I think I definitely put my strategies into practice when I started driving here!

Correction: This article originally said that a fender is also called a bumper. Thanks to the commenter who pointed out that a fender is the part that protects a car’s wheels, while a bumper is the bit on the front and back that absorbs impact in a head-on or rear-end collision.


  1. Over in the UK you can lose your license for 5 years if caught under the influence of alcohol while driving. We have a test where you breathe into a bag which determines the amount of alcohol you have in your blood. If you refuse to take any tests you will be escorted to local police station where you will undergo a urine and blood test.

  2. Idioms are an intricate part of the language but of course need to be learned by heart so we recommend learning 10 commonly used ones. I have done the same for the Czech language, where I am based now. I also agree btw with the other readers that this article is excellent.

    Hezky den!/Lovely day!

    Neville 🙂
    ITTP TEFL Prague / Online

  3. Keep up talking about IDIOMS it is really useful for us, English speaker as a second language, and you can tell us what we can do in order to reinforce our English.

  4. In other parts of the USA, a DUI (Driving Under the Influence of alcohol or drugs) is called a DWI (Driving While Intoxicated).

    The Brake Retarder is also called an Engine Brake or a “Jake” Brake (after the Jacobs Engine Brake (TM)), a system that uses engine compression to assist in slowing large trucks. It can be very loud when used.

    Fenders and Bumpers are actually two different auto parts. The fender is also known as a mudguard, wing or quarterpanel and goes over the tires. The bumpers are on the front and back ends of the auto. (Wing is used in Britain and not the US.)

    1. Well, I learned something. The bit that equated a fender and a bumper was added by me, the editor (born and raised American). I always thought they were the same thing! But the internet confirms otherwise, so blame the editor not the writer for that one and I’ll make the correction right away.

  5. One of the most important things we teach our teacher-trainees is the importance of a Needs Analysis with students, that is finding out (amongst other things) exactly what kind of English students need to know.

    Any class of students who intend to live in an English speaking country (or already live there) MUST be taught certain essential items of English and this includes things like roadsigns! There will, of course, be overlap into the country’s culture here which, in my opinion, is a good thing.

    The bottom line? If a teacher knows their students are heading off to live in Pennsylvania (or any other location of course) then they should prepare their students for the kind of language their going to find there!

    1. Hello!

      I couldn’t agree more. (Un)Fortunately, many situations in life are unforeseeable, so not all of them can be covered. I never though I would be coming to the United States, let alone that I would live here! So, even though I can perform very well in academic, social and other contexts, I initially failed at interpreting some of those signs. Nonetheless, I don’t see the experience as a failure, since I found myself capable of using strategies that helped me overcome the barriers I encountered.

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