Avoid Hilton Head bridge nightmare traffic: Here are the worst times and days to travel

Here’s how bad traffic can get when you hit the Hilton Head bridge at the wrong time

Traffic to and from Hilton Head Island is often congested, but it can be at its worst on summer Saturdays when its tourist season and the vacationers are arriving.
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Traffic to and from Hilton Head Island is often congested, but it can be at its worst on summer Saturdays when its tourist season and the vacationers are arriving.

Hilton Head Islanders have all made the same agonizing mistake at least once.

It’s a Saturday afternoon. You just had a lovely afternoon running errands around Bluffton and Savannah and are ready to cruise home for a refreshing drink and some evening island activities.

But suddenly, somewhere around Tanger Outlets, you see a cluster conundrum of cars ahead, and it all hits you: It’s Saturday afternoon in tourist season, and you are about to join thousands of vacationers on the final, most painful leg of their journey — crossing the Hilton Head Bridge.

During these peak excruciating hours, between 2,200 and 2,500 vehicles are traveling east, and it can take between 30 minutes and an hour to drive the one-mile stretch of four connecting bridges to Hilton Head, according to data from the S.C. Department of Transportation.

Check-in for the thousands of Saturday-to-Saturday rentals fall in the same window of time and have traditionally been blamed for the backups. But a deep dive into average speeds and daily traffic speeds over the past few years can tell us more about this fairly predictable traffic issue.

Here is everything you need to know about traffic on the bridge and how to avoid the headaches.

Times to avoid the bridge

In June and July, 6 p.m. on Saturday is the worst hour to drive east on the bridge, with speeds averaging 20 mph, according to months of data from SCDOT.

At 5 p.m., traffic is barely better at a 21-mph average, while 4 p.m. traffic averages are the third-worst time at 22 mph.

The speed limit on the bridge is 55 mph.

Some Saturdays, however, show the bad traffic starts around 1 p.m. and continues through 9 p.m.

Time (summer months) Average speed
1 p.m.46 mph
2 p.m.37 mph
3 p.m25 mph
4 p.m22 mph
5 p.m.21 mph
6 p.m.20 mph
7 p.m.24 mph
8 p.m.41 mph

The takeaway: Do not travel to Hilton Head on the bridge between 1 and 9 p.m on Saturdays in the summer. If you hit traffic at 4 p.m., it likely will not get any better for several hours, so you might as well plan ahead and cross the bridge early.

During the school year, avoid the eastbound bridge between 8 and 10 a.m., when average speeds range from 25-35 mph. The morning rush hour in the summer isn’t nearly as delayed, with average speeds between 35 and 45 mph.

Westbound traffic typically does not see the same level of traffic delays and predictable patterns, with average speeds typically between 45 and 55 throughout the week.

When does it begin and end?

The season for nightmare Saturday bridge traffic — when average speeds drop significantly in the afternoon — begins the last Saturday in May, and lasts through the second week of August, according to three years of data.

August traffic is a little lighter, however, and doesn’t last nearly as long. Average speeds in the first two Saturdays of August appeared to decrease only between 4 and 7 p.m in the past two years.

Best and worst days for travel on the bridge

The highest traffic volume day on the bridge so far in 2019 wasn’t on a Saturday. On May 24, the Friday before Memorial Day, 71,809 vehicles traveled across the bridge. Here are the other 5 highest traffic volume days in 2019:

  • June 28: The Friday before the Fourth of July, 70,752 vehicles.
  • April 26: The Friday after Easter (a week after RBC Heritage), 70,360 vehicles.
  • April 18: The first day of tournament play (Thursday) at RBC Heritage, 69,548 vehicles.
  • March 15: The Friday before St. Patrick’s Day and Spring Break for many districts), 69,197 vehicles.
  • June 29: The Saturday before the Fourth of July, 68,747 vehicles.

The busiest days for travel on the bridge this year fell on days leading up to holidays or Heritage (which is pretty much a holiday here). Three of the top 10 days were Saturdays in June.

Holidays themselves typically aren’t busy days on the bridge, however. For the past two years, July 4 has been the least busy day of the month and one of the easiest travel days of the summer.

Nine of the lowest traffic-volume days in 2019 were in January and February. Jan. 12 was the least traveled day of 2019, with 42,447 vehicles crossing this bridge.

Hilton Head saw record-breaking traffic in April last year on the Thursday before Easter, with 72,389 vehicles crossing the bridge. This was the most traffic on the bridge in a single day since at least 2013.

How to avoid bridge headaches

For both locals and tourists, planning is key to avoid these terrible traffic snarls.

Always check the Beaufort County traffic cameras before heading out, as accidents can clog traffic even during the best times.

Some traffic headaches could be solved in the future. The South Carolina Department of Transportation will replace the first bridge heading east over Mackay’s Creek; construction will start after 2021. Local and state leaders are still identifying options for the future of Hilton Head’s bridge, which could mean an entirely new structure connecting Hilton Head with the mainland.

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Mandy Matney is an award-winning journalist and self-proclaimed shark enthusiast from Kansas. She worked for newspapers in Missouri and Illinois before she realized Midwestern winters are horrible, then moved to Hilton Head in 2016. She is the breaking news editor at the Island Packet.