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Meltdown meter: Why family road trips go bad

Boredom and bother lead to meltdowns on family road trips and lasting repercussions, according to's survey.

By QuinStreet Jun 26, 2014 10:59AM
This post comes from Michelle Megna at partner site on MSN MoneyIf you see a family sitting in their car on the side of the road this summer, chances are it's due to a breakdown, but not of the mechanical sort. Seventy-one percent of drivers say they've pulled their car over during a family road trip due to someone having a meltdown, according to's new survey. asked  1,561 drivers who said their families have experienced road-trip meltdowns to name the main causes, who is the first to experience an emotional eruption in the car and when, and what happens as a result.

Drivers who say a meltdown has led to other problems point to the following repercussions:

Family of three loading car with luggage, low angle view © Juice Images, Cultura, Getty Images 

  • A near-miss: 21 percent
  • Long-term family argument: 19 percent
  • Turning around to go home: 19 percent
  • Traffic ticket: 14 percent
  • Accident: 8 percent

While your premiums are likely to go up if you do happen to get ticketed or have an accident, you should check with your insurer to see what car insurance discounts you qualify for to help mitigate any potential rate increases.

Boredom, bothering and boiling points

Despite the potential consequences of family road trip mishaps, 86 percent of drivers say they look forward to the seasonal ritual of packing up the car, piling in the family and hitting the road.

Most drivers realize a happy car trip with the kids relies heavily on keeping them entertained, and the survey findings underscore this basic parenting principle. Children under age 13 are most likely to lose their composure first (53 percent), followed by teens (23 percent), wives (13 percent) and husbands (11 percent).

Drivers who have experienced a passenger meltdown flag the following as main causes:

  • Boredom: 32 percent
  • Someone pestering someone else: 19 percent
  • Someone won't stop talking: 7 percent
  • Someone touches someone else: 6 percent
  • Disagreement over radio stations: 5 percent
  • Hunger: 4 percent
  • Disagreement over stops: 4 percent
  • Disagreement over where to eat: 4 percent
  • Someone is looking at someone else: 4 percent
  • Conflicting directions: 4 percent
  • Disagreement over a car game: 3 percent
  • Other: 3 percent
  • Disagreement over what to watch:   2 percent
  • Car sickness: 2 percent
  • Something lost in car: 1 percent

While many families (45 percent) enjoy a peaceful journey for two or more hours before someone melts down, 7 percent experience a meltdown before leaving the neighborhood; 15 percent within an hour of being on the road.

Others put the brakes on the idea altogether – 31 percent have decided not to go on a family road trip due to past passenger meltdowns.

Nearly half of drivers (48 percent) say the longest road trip they would go on would last multiple days and a quarter (25 percent) say a full day is the limit. Nineteen percent will venture out for no more than a half day, and some drivers set the maximum road-trip time at a few hours (7 percent).

Thirty-seven percent of drivers report they take more than one car when they embark on a family vacation on the road. Others prefer not to take their own cars at all – 13 percent always drive rentals; 45 percent rent sometimes.

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Jun 26, 2014 2:30PM
We used to travel a lot. We didn't have iPods or in car videos. We used to sing, play "I Spy" or sleep. The alternative was a spanking. There are so many wonderful things to see on long trips, animals, interesting buildings, etc. Children are too easily bored and have little to no imagination these days. They also have no respect for their parents or siblings. As a child, i was " seen but not heard", I behaved like an adult.
Jun 26, 2014 2:53PM
Times sure have changed... my parents used to stuff all 5 of us kids in the back of a Toyota Camry (94?), and take us places for 2hrs+, and our ages ranged from 13 to 4 (no car seats, this was outside the US). Minimal complaints, no meltdowns, no computers, tablets, TV or DVDs. Sometimes we had old comic books we had read for months, and sometimes we just had thumb fights or fell sleep, especially when you had window seat, which was determined by rock-paper-scissors. Discipline in children is as lost these days as common sense.
Jun 26, 2014 2:07PM
How about the argument about why some want to go on vacation and cannot afford it because,
1.  Gas is too high
2.  Motels and hotels are too expensive
3.  Eating in restaurants on vacations are too expensive.
4.  There is too little money left to enjoy going to attractions. 
That should start any argument with any family.

Jun 26, 2014 3:25PM
Just got done w/ a road trip.  Stats:
  Portland Oregon to Los Angeles:  1,003 mi one way.
  Broke up the drive over 2 days:  Sat & Sun down, and Sat & Sun back.
  Myself, the wife, and two boys, aged 8 & 5.
  Brought along water bottles, snacks, books, comic books, action figures, and Magna-Doodles.
  Drove no more than 2 hours before stopping for restrooms, food, gas, or just to walk around in a rest area.
  Mini-van equipped with a DVD player; no more than one 75 min movie per day (4 total movies over 4 days).  (We were on our way to (and back from) Disneyland, so we watched 4 classic Disney films.  It was the first time we'd ever used the DVD player in over 2 years of ownership.)

We had a blast!!  Saw beautiful countryside; listened to 20 different CDs of music; played Travel Bingo and "How Many Different States' License Plates Have We Seen"; chatted; my 8-year-old read aloud for a while - it was awesome.  No i-Anythings, no Nintendo anythings... yes, we used the DVD player, but not over-much (in my opinion).  Would do it again any time... :)
Jun 26, 2014 3:04PM
Nice fluff piece... The number one reason road trips fail is that you are silly enough to take your children along with you.  My wife was a long distance trucker in her last life and she would stuff the car and is always ready to ride.  We just did Colorado to San Francisco and back and discovered some incredible things.  First, Nevada is uninhabitable and if they didn't legalize gambling, there would be no reason to be there (...Satire people, don't get in a wad...)  Second, California must have had first dibs as when Nevada finally starts to get interesting, it turns into California.  Third, life does go on without Doctor Fun and license plate bingo is just as fun for adults.  I don't mind flying but the attention to detail that you can only experience on the ground is one of the most marvelous facits of this wonderful planet we all live on.
Jun 26, 2014 2:49PM
I forward to the seasonal ritual of packing up the car, piling in the family and waving goodbye from the driveway.
Jun 26, 2014 3:12PM

I've been very fortunate with my family on trips. We make multiple 8 hr trips per year without much fuss. If it was only a 2 hr trip I think most in my family would sleep through it. That's with 2 adults, 2 kids (started around age 3 to now age 17), a 65lb bassett hound, and a parrot in a cat carrier. All stuffed in a PT Cruiser with back loaded with stuff. So it's never been the most comfortable travel arrangement. Especially since the dog wants to lay on someone's lap.


There's been some yelling from time to time but never a meltdown of any kind.

Jun 26, 2014 4:02PM
Well, the wife seems to think she has to stop in at Cousin Eddies along the way and the next thing you know, it's straight to hell from there.
Jun 26, 2014 2:53PM
This article must be a filler for a slow news day because otherwise it is worthless.
Jun 27, 2014 9:15AM
Families these days don't hang around each other at home. Why should you think that you'll get along by packing everyone into a 50 cubic foot space for hours?
Jun 26, 2014 3:01PM
What used to be something to look forward, a road trip now is a very unpleasant experience. The cost of everything is too high, the roads are way too congested, and everyone is pressed for time.
Jun 26, 2014 4:14PM
I did a 5000 mile trip from MD to Yellowstone, CO and back over 2 weeks....planned all stops, driving distances, hotels, things to do...and left a bit of random time to wander.  5 people in a CR-V with a car topper.  Was a very good trip.  Knowing not to drive 1000 miles in a day, day after day, is paramount.  Planning stops ahead and interesting breaks to pull off and see local stuff (i.e. Pipestone Nat'l Monument in MN) that take more than an hour or 2 really can mellow out the passengers.  We did not use iPads or games to calm anyone.
Jun 26, 2014 5:28PM

Sacramento, Ca. to mid Maine and back. Wife and me, 51 and 46. NO KIDS OR PETS! 2008 Avalon, 53 days and a bit over 10,700 miles. No reservations, no plans, no idea, just a couple of gps contraptions and a box full of maps, buncha clothes and an ice chest. 22 states and had the trip of a lifetime. No fights, no meltdowns, no tickets, no accidents, (scared the hell out of several deer! though), Saw what we wanted, stayed as long as we liked and did not want to come back home. Filthy car and about $40,000 in credit card bills and a ton of gifts and souvenirs when we got back. I would do it again tomorrow! 25th anniversary trip. Oh, and 10,850 digital images! better than one per mile! 

Jun 28, 2014 7:09AM
If traveling with two kids, hogtie one and put him/her on the roof rack or in the trunk.
Works every time.
Jun 27, 2014 4:33PM
Nothing that a roll of Duck Tape won't solve !


These days are different , My Daughter has a DVD player in Her Suv and plenty of tapes, and all the children have their Kindles. That will keep them occupied for a while.
Jun 27, 2014 9:45AM
My dad was ahead of his time. ("don't make me have to stop this car")  Except his response would have been to grab the kid in the back, from the front and give him a what for!
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