People over money

Matthew O’Neill was an extraordinary man living an extraordinary life when he met his death in the most pedestrian of ways. A 16-year-old driving a pickup and hauling a horse trailer struck Matthew from behind, killing him instantly. The driver, son of local politico Abel Maldonado, may have been breaking the law at the time. He was carrying an 18-year-old passenger, even though state law forbids youth drivers to have such passengers unless an adult driver, minimum age 25, is also in the car. For his part, Matthew’s reflectors and lights made him “lit up like a Christmas tree.”

In addition to being one tough guy on a bike — Matthew was riding a 1,200-km randonneuring event at the time he was killed — he was a force for good in the world. Whether advocating for the handicapped in Los Angeles, or advocating as a Ph. D. student working on his degree in special education, or simply mentoring riders who were trying to finish their first 1,000-km “rando,” Matthew lived his life in the service of others.

For his fiancee Jennie Passwater, his parents, his fellow students and teachers at the Gevirtz Graduate School of education, and his cycling buddies, the trade was horrific: The convenience of some careless punk in a pick-up in exchange for the life man who bent his back to make the world a better place. No amount of rational thought will ever make sense of it.

The things that we’ve all become accustomed to as we seek to find a word less frayed and tattered than “tragedy,” are all here. There is a memorial ride on September 7; a memorial service is being planned by the graduate school; and there’s a memorial Twitter account to which you can donate money.

These are all important ways to express your support for his friends and family. But the most important thing you can do is also the hardest: Be a person with a voice.

Here’s what I mean.

Matthew’s parents, his fiancee, his friend Stacey Kline, and some of his rando buddies have decided to use this awful occurrence as an opportunity to do what Matthew would have done: Educate people. And what they need to be educated about is the 3-foot passing law that goes into effect on September 16, 2014, CVC 21760. Had Matthew’s killer given himself adequate room to pass, Matthew would be alive today.

When we think about help and advocacy, especially political change, we think about asking for and making donations. Money is the way we’re taught to express our desire for change. I’ve donated money to all kinds of causes, and have solicited on behalf of others and on behalf of my own pet projects. And while money is important, at best it’s second best.


Because people are more powerful than dollars. That’s why a thousand angry letters to a congressman means more than $10,000 from a lobbyist. It’s why the political system whispers in your ear that your vote doesn’t matter, your voice doesn’t matter, your pen doesn’t matter — all that matters is money, and you don’t have enough of it.

This message of counter-democracy is a lie. One person calling, or writing, or showing up to talk in person is worth a thousand dollars in advertising, or more. Matthew made change in the world as one person, as a person with a voice. He helped people not with donations but with his voice, his mind, his spirit, and his time. He reached out, and there’s reason that “reach out” is such a powerful metaphor: It is a human hand holding another, it is the essence of giving, it is the soul of humanity.

The times that I have seen change happen, it has happened because people dropped what they were doing and went out and made themselves heard. Whether it was Greg Seyranian and Gary Cziko and Ron Peterson riding two-by-two on PCH, or Ralph Abernathy refusing to be silenced, change is at its most powerful when people speak their voice to those who are, by law, paid to listen to it.

Change happens on a personal level too, when you take the time to tell people what you think. In this case, California has a new 3-foot passing law that many cyclists don’t know about, and hardly any drivers are aware of in a state where cagers and the other minions of motordom regularly shout at cyclists to “Ride on the sidewalk!”

Your voice matters, just like Matthew’s did. His friends and family are committed to getting the word out about the 3-foot law, even if it’s one person at a time. You can talk about it with a friend, a co-worker, or another rider. Every voice counts, every person you make aware is a potential saved life. People over money.

30 thoughts on “People over money”

    1. I don’t even think my wife knew about the law. Of course she gives cyclists a wide berth anyway, but …

  1. Seth – thank you so much for writing so meaningfully about Matthew and our efforts to change a driving culture of laissez-faire attitudes when it comes to cyclists. I am so appreciative of all of your posts, and since Matthew was a friend, this one in particular.

  2. If this was a direct rear-end crash, then I fail to see how the minimum passing distance law is relevant. From your description, it sounds like a case of total negligence or recklessness, not mere ignorance of safe passing distance.

    1. It sounds like he was hit by the horse trailer, but it’s still under investigation. The 3-foot law would have required the driver to cross the dotted yellow line to legally pass. But yes, it was negligence, at a minimum — but that’s a civil law concept rather than a criminal one.

  3. Thank you so much for writing about Matthew. He was a dear friend and my husband’s and my riding partner on that fateful ride. He was riding safely and legally in the road, and the young man who hit him reportedly told the police that he saw Matthew in the road.

    The issue that we are campaigning in Matthew’s name is:
    Remember Matthew O’Neill:
    Change lanes to pass a bicyclist.

    The new 3 Feet for Safety law does not make any allowance for motorists to cross a solid yellow center line when overtaking a cyclist as other states already do. This leaves a motorist only two options, slow down and wait for a passing area, which on a rural road with a high speed limit, can be a long time, or make a judgement to pass in the lane with the cyclist. Most people have trouble judging distance on the passenger side of a vehicle, and this can lead to disastrous consequences as it did with Matthew. Matthew’s family and friends are campaigning to amend California’s new 3 Feet for Safety law to allow crossing a solid yellow.

    We are asking people to go to the Matthew O’Neill FB page and sign up for the memorial ride on September 7. We will meet in Ventura at 9:30am and roll at 10.

    Please consider attending Matthew’s Celebration of Life this Saturday, August 30, in Chula Vista, at 2PM, at the First United Methodist Church. The mayor of San Diego, and the Chief of Police will be attending to show solidarity with Matthew’s family and cyclists everywhere.

    More information can be found at:

    Keep up the great work, Seth, your blog is amazing.

    Stacy Kline

  4. When we all stand up. When we all resist just a little. We are no longer a voice in the wind. Our voices become the wind.

  5. The “3 Feet for Safety law does not make any allowance for motorists to cross a solid yellow center line when overtaking a cyclist “,
    but it’s hard to believe that a citation would be ever issued for that.

    OTOH, there are plenty of dickhead traffic cops roaming the streets, as the misadventures on PCH have shown

    1. Thanks for your blog post, Seth. Good to see the community getting together to raise awareness 🙂

      I’ve heard a few accounts here in San Diego’s east county of police officers ticketing motorists for crossing a double yellow when passing a cyclist, then chewing out the cyclist and telling him/her it was their fault the motorist was ticketed. SMH… We’ve had a good deal of animosity between motorists, cyclists, and the police on one of our most popular training routes. To be fair, this is a back country area with no shoulder, and sometimes cyclists contribute to the problem by riding two or three abreast to deliberately block motorists. EVERYONE on the road needs to work together to be part of the solution and to be more conscious of one another when sharing the road! Cyclists have the most to lose in these encounters…

      1. I agree with you to some extent, yes, cyclists need to be aware as do drivers of all vehicles. But! Two abreast is safer IMHO because it makes a group of cyclists a smaller clump of “moving obstacle” to pass, which is safer than a long string of cyclists hugging (or not) the gutter. Shoulder or no shoulder, it is easy for a car to pass if they have to cross the line, but when the other lane is clear, the car can pass in a few seconds and be on their way.

        1. Two abreast is always safer, and riding in the middle of the lane is almost as good.

  6. Thank you, Seth. Due to having friends on that ride, I was closely following the reports from riders and workers. And after hearing all the stories about the fatal collision, I finally saw an image of Matthew – and I realized that he and I had met some years before, though we never bothered exchanging names at the time. The whole mess is just sad beyond words.

    One thing I just can’t help but bring up – tragedies like this one point out clearly: Motorists and cyclists do NOT share the same “rights and responsibilities” on the road. The driver of a high, heavy, wide pickup, pulling a heavy trailer on our public roads has an enormously larger responsibility to ensure the safety of all other road users. Not “same” not “equal.” Way the hell larger. And it is time we stop treating all road users the same.

    1. During a conversation this AM with a group of International cyclists, I learned that Copenhagen and I’m guessing Denmark, has a simple law regarding accountability on the roads. In a collision, it is presumed that the larger vehicle is at fault. So bike + ped = ped wins/bike looses, bike +car= bike wins/car looses, car+truck=car wins/truck looses and so on.

      Simple. I was told that the responsibility heightens as you drive a larger vehicle. Also makes sense. And the upshot is, everyone knows and works by this simple dynamic.

      1. Same in Japan. Big guy who can cause the most damage has the most responsibility. It’s an ancient maritime concept.

  7. I want to thank DarellDD, above, for raising a vital point: Motordom has had decades and spent $-billions creating, then promoting the myth that deference must be given to the largest or fastest motor vehicle– in essence that “might makes right.” That idea is rejected in European culture where bicyclists are accepted as full, but vulnerable, road users. And it is rejected by maritime traditions and even by early American road custom which placed heavier responsibility on teamsters.

    American road culture is sick and dysfunctional and it is up to us, the living, to change it in the name of its victims.

    1. That’s right, Pete. As with Darell, very well said.

      That you can kill someone by running over them with a truck and trailer because you weren’t paying attention is unconscionable. Imagine using that excuse while driving in front of a kindergarten or a school for the visually handicapped.

  8. Thanks Seth, thats a very powerful idea, well expressed. Personal actions are very powerful. Ghandi knew that.

  9. The driver, son of local politico Abel Maldonado

    I assume the DA is silent about pressing any kind of charges. Funny how that works. He pleas to a misdemeanor if we’re lucky.

    Because people are more powerful than dollars. That’s why a thousand angry letters to a congressman means more than $10,000 from a lobbyist.

    Not just angry letters. They must vote. How many voted assuming you had primaries earlier this year? How many asked about multi-use transit issues during a campaign?

    Excellent post overall.

  10. Thanks again for writing about Matthew O’Neill

    He really was as amazing as he seemed. It is at once wonderful to look at all of our cycling photos, but extremely painful knowing that he is gone. He was there on my and my husband Greg’s first randonneuring ride, and I just can’t believe that we were together on his last ride. His family asked if I would like to say a few words at his Celebration of Life, and I just hope I can keep it together…

    We’ve been working on his advocacy campaign non-stop for the last three weeks with regards to change lanes to pass a cyclist.

    Serge Issakov of the San Diego Bicycle Coalition, CABO, and Bicycle Driving to name a few, posted that Jen’s and my interview two weeks ago was the first time motorists yielding when overtaking cyclists has been discussed as a best practice in the media as far as he could recall. It seems that things may be changing with regards to attitudes towards cyclists being respected as equal and *expected* road users.

    I have been tweeting about the bumper sticker that my husband Greg Kline created with Keri Caffrey of Cycling Savvy and I Am Traffic. Keri emailed us immediately after Matthew’s death and offered her artwork and time for Greg to use to create the Change Lanes to Pass A Bicyclist bumper sticker posted on my Twitter account:


    This sticker gives clear, unambiguous instructions to motorists how to proceed when overtaking a cyclist. It is also unique from other 3 Feet to Pass stickers in that it shows the cyclist in the correct lane positioning, not exhibiting edge behavior. It also shows the motorist changing lanes to pass the cyclist, not straddling a lane which is illegal, not to mention dangerous. Greg also asked Keri to put the BMUFL sign on the left to get people used to that signage in the roadway. We need to remove the ambiguous “Share the Road” signs, as they have in Delaware:
    Because Keri did the work for us, we have an exceptionally high quality image to use.

    I tweeted this bumper sticker last week, and it was retweeted by CalTransHQ, ABC, the California Bicycle Coalition, the CHP, Ted Rogers of Biking in LA, with 39 retweets and 18 favorites. I couldn’t believe it was so well received. Last night, Greg and I placed the first bumper sticker on our car, tweeted it at midnight, and it was retweeted and favorited in just the first hour (#latenightworkcrew indeed)!

    I am the public relations officer for OCW, and our dear president, Paul D’Aquanni asked me to have 3000 of the stickers printed to pass out to our membership, all 1200 riders on the Amtrak Century next week, local outreach efforts, the randonneuring community reeling from Matthew’s loss, and also at Matthew’s Celebration of Life.

    In addition to Change Lanes to Pass a Motorist, Matthew’s father, Mike O’Neill, a retired police officer, has called for an immediate amendment to the new “3 Feet for Safety Act” to allow motorists to legally cross a solid yellow center line, *when safe to do so*, as it is in so many other states, with one of the best examples in Ohio.

    Unfortunately, that yellow line, dashed or solid, becomes a wall that motorists are unwilling to cross, often with terrible consequences.

  11. Pingback: Remember Matthew O’Neill | 2m2t

  12. I think we are mistaken, if we tell other cyclists to stay in the middle of a lane. The reality is, no matter what we do at this point, there will be a majority of drivers out there who don’t know the 3-foot rule.
    Rob Yula. Riding roads since 1983.

  13. A Mourning Cyclist

    What makes us think educating cyclist about an absurd law will change anything? The law wouldn’t change the outcome for Matthew. A law doesn’t “make” us do thing. Time needs to be spent on educating millions of non-cyclist not a few hundred cyclist

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