Gridlock Guy: Nifty car games to pass time on road trips

Boredom is not mandatory on road trips. (Mark Boster/Los Angeles Times/TNS)

Credit: TNS

Credit: TNS

Boredom is not mandatory on road trips. (Mark Boster/Los Angeles Times/TNS)

As summer travel season is well underway (here in late spring), many have taken or are planning to take to the roads. The WSB Traffic Team and I see grinding, slow traffic on I-75 in Henry County almost every afternoon and through the weekends, sometimes made worse by crashes like the one I wrote about in the Express Lanes last week. That heavy volume can add minutes or even an hour or two to road trips, which already are grueling. Add kids into the mix and long vacation commutes require the patience of Job from parents or elders in the front seats.

Boredom is not mandatory on road trips, especially if the group in the car can play the right games. Having some games and some polite competition can draw people close together and build some friendly conflict that will make the sand fall faster through the hourglass.

I didn’t play any games in the car on our annual St. Augustine, Florida beach trips in the 1990s. I don’t really know what I did to pass the time, but I don’t remember my brother or me bugging my folks too badly about boredom. In my high school years in the 2000s, I learned a couple of road trip games with my Clairmont Presbyterian youth group, as we drove to several places in the southeast in the 2000s. My youth leaders and friends taught me some good ones.

There is the alphabet-sign game, which works best with a group of no more than four or five. In this game, players simply try to find a word on a sign that begins with the letters a-z, in order. The players cannot use the exact same letter as one another, so this game gets especially challenging on obscure letters and on remote stretches. This game is possibly my favorite.

Another one that I love as a trivia buff is a geography game where the first player names a geographical location and then the next player has to name another one that begins with the last letter of the previous player’s answer. I love getting the chance to answer, “Halifax.”

I decided to pose the question about road trip games to friends on social media and got some good responses.

There are several variations on the license plate game, where players try and ID plates from different places. 95.5 WSB assistant news director Amanda Moyer: “You look for all 50 states and Washington D.C. on the way to your destination. Bonus if you spot the U.S. territories.” Bonus, indeed - there are not many Guam plates on the east coast.

@KudzuCarl got in touch on Twitter with a variation on this game, where he prints a map of the U.S. and pays each kid 25 cents for each state they spot, $1 for Canadian provinces or Mexican states, and $5 for Alaska and Hawaii plates. Several other friends on Facebook and Twitter played versions of this game.

Susan Oltman, who accompanied me as a chaperone on at least one of those youth trips, wrote on Facebook that she and her husband and daughters played “20 Questions” - a lot. This is where the answerer thinks of a subject or object and doesn’t tell anyone what it is. The others playing have 20 yes or no questions to ask and figure out what it is. No lying is allowed. Whoever guesses it right becomes the next answerer. If they don’t guess it in 20 questions, the answerer chooses another object and the game starts again. There goes at least 20 minutes for one round right there.

Kim Duncan said on Facebook that she and her husband play “Slug Bugs”, where they get to punch each other every time one of them sees a Volkswagen Beetle first. I’m sure these are light, playful punches.

And 95.5 WSB fill-in talk show host Alan Sanders said that he and his family let the internet do some of the work for them. The Sanders family simply looks up trivia questions and quizzes each other. My bet is that Alan wins those.

There are also travel versions of board games. My favorite is Scrabble, where the tiles lock into the board, which folds up in a case. Games like these might be worth the investment, but they, unfortunately, do not include the driver, who might need the most engagement on long rides.

Whether the games involve geography, eagle-eye letter and license plate-scouting, or elite investigative question-asking, putting the minds to work and oozing some competitive juices can spin the numbers on the odometer faster. Or is that too analog? Peppering some games into a road trip can spice up the atmosphere more than just burying faces in phones or tablets. And games like these give the person doing the most work, the driver, a way to participate with minimal distraction. Everyone can win. Drive safely and happily out there.

Doug Turnbull, the PM drive Skycopter anchor for Triple Team Traffic on 95.5 WSB, is the Gridlock Guy. He also hosts a traffic podcast with Smilin’ Mark McKay on Contact him at