Death By Auto: A Cyclist Is Gone

As the streets of Philadelphia become more congested, bicyclists are giving up their bikes because they no longer feel safe.

I sold my bike five years ago when I put it up for sale on Craig List. I sold it to a Methodist minister from New Jersey. As he arranged the bike on the back of his pickup truck, I felt relieved that I would no longer have to dodge speeding cars. Yes, I would be spared being hit from behind by a crazed drug dealer, or hit head on by a trucker who had one too many pitchers at the local pub.

In 2014 4,884 pedestrians and 726 bicyclists were killed in crashes with automobiles. If you were to round that out that would come to two people everyday of the year. According to the Pedestrian and Bicyclist Information Center, the 2014 numbers are slightly lower than they were in 2013, when 749 bicyclists were killed by cars. California, Florida and Texas lead the nation in cycle fatalities. 88% of all bicycle fatalities are male and 71% occur in urban areas.

In the early morning hours on Friday, September 2, 42 year old Matthew Matteson was driving his mountain bike to his second job along the 5700 block of Frankford Avenue when he was hit head on by a driver in a silver Buick Century going in the opposite direction. Something happened to make the Buick swerve into Matthew's path, but what? Was the driver drunk, texting a friend or perhaps talking on the phone? Matteson was safely in the bike lane on the other side of the road with his safety lights flashing when the Buick crossed the median strip and struck him, sending him on the hood of the vehicle, then 114 feet into the air until his body landed on the side of the road. His mangled bike lay nearby, its safety lights still flashing.

A life ended, just like that.

The driver of the Buick ditched his car and left the vicinity, turning himself in later to police who took him away for questioning. Matthew was given a Matteson family funeral on Monday September 12, ten days after the tragedy. It is now almost one month after the tragedy and the name of the driver of the Buick has still not been released by the Philadelphia Police. Can this accident that seems so cut and dried be so hard to investigate?

I did not know Matt Matteson but I have a close friend who is a friend of his uncle's, so I was privy to some information about the deceased. Matt lived a pretty satisfying life with his father, worked two jobs and had just sold his car because he was concerned about pollution and making the world more 'green' friendly place. I heard that Matt did not own a computer and that he lived very cheaply. He lived pretty much like a monk who had taken a vow of poverty.

The precise manner of Matt's death, his being hit by a car going in the opposite direction after it swerved in his direction, seems pretty cut and dry. There have been engineered "accidents" like this in James Bond movies where the villain slams his vehicle head on into the car of the hero. Certainly there have been drivers who have had heart attacks while behind the wheel, then lost control and gone over to the other side where they hit a pedestrian or a tree. I once spoke with a young guy who said that he had a stroke while driving on the expressway. He blanked out, after which his car swerved to the other side of the street where he rammed into a tree. He survived with very few injuries.

When I first heard about Matteson's death I assumed that the killer car had come up behind Matteson and hit his bicycle from behind. In all my years as a cyclist my biggest fear was that a car would jump the road and hit the bike accidentally. There are drivers, after all, who have a mortal fear of driving too close to oncoming traffic because they fear head on collisions, so they drive too close to the culvert, sometimes hitting road signs or going into the culvert itself. These were the drivers I had to watch out for as a cyclist.

Hearing that the killer car hit Matt Matteson head on was a troubling thing to imagine. Presumably the car had been traveling in a straight path all along and then, suddenly, as if by osmosis, it swerves into the opposite bike lane as soon as a cyclist appears? Talk about a nasty coincidence.

There's a pronounced curve in the road at 5700 Frankford Avenue. At night the curve is an extremely dark (unlighted) patch of highway.

It's been almost a month since Matteson's death and the DA still hasn't finished its investigation. When I called PPD Media relations for an update on the case, I was told that the investigation was still "ongoing," and that at some point a "verdict" will be reached. At that time an arrest warrant could be issued to the driver of the Buick.

When I heard about the Matteson tragedy, I was reading a biography of French writer Albert Camus. Camus, who was born in French controlled Algeria in 1911, grew up in poverty but managed to become one of France's leading writers and journalists, winning the Nobel prize for Literature in 1957. Camus died at age 46 when the car he was a passenger in suddenly started to wobble sideways, went off the road and hit a tree, then wrapped itself around a second tree. Camus was killed instantly (he thrown out the back windshield) while the driver later died in hospital. The two women passengers survived, but a small dog disappeared.

Camus always had a fear of speed, and on several occasions during that fatal road trip he had asked the driver to slow down. The driver did not listen. At the time of the accident the car was traveling on a beautiful country road bordered by a canopy of trees. It has just started to rain before the car began to wobble.

As Camus biographer Olivier Todd noted, "The dashboard clock, which had been thrown into a nearby field, was stuck at 1:55 p.m. Camus had often told friends that nothing was more scandalous than the death of a child, and nothing more absurd than to die in a car accident."

Dying while riding a bicycle is just as absurd as dying in a car crash. When the PPD eventually announces the name, age and profession of the driver of the Buick Mercury, we may have a better understanding of this tragedy.

Some possible verdicts:
1. The driver was an 80 year old man who mistook the accelerator for the break.
2. The driver was a 20 year old drug running hooligan who had just ingested a gram of speed.
3. The driver was somebody important, a public figure, and this is the reason for the long investigation.
4. The driver was just your average drunk driver coming from a bar on Lehigh Avenue where they shoot pool.

The sad fact is, in Philadelphia there are too many cars on a small number of given streets and this makes for glutted traffic nightmares where it can take 30 minutes to travel 5 miles. Drivers, as a result, are more impatient and angrier than ever. New building construction in the city will increase downtown traffic, and this means that in the future there will be even less room on city streets for a new glut of vehicles.