Matthew O’Neill was killed just before sunset along a narrow but well-traveled two-lane road east of Santa Maria surrounded by strawberry fields and low hills. It was 7:30 p.m. on Saturday, August 9, and he was riding his recumbent bicycle in a long distance trip from San Jose to Solvang, then back up to San Luis Obispo.
As he headed west along a straightaway of Foxen Canyon Road, O’Neill — 33 years old and a UCSB doctoral student studying special education — was clipped by a Chevy 3500 pickup truck hauling a horse trailer and also traveling westbound. He died at the scene. According to witnesses, O’Neill was on the far right edge of the road, and he and his bike were adorned with reflectors and lights. They said he was “lit up like a Christmas tree.”
The truck was driven by the 16-year-old son of former Lt. Governor Abel Maldonado, a Santa Maria resident who also served as mayor of the city. Maldonado’s 18-year-old son, Nicolas, was the only passenger. The California Highway Patrol said the incident is under investigation and will remain so “for quite some time,” but the agency doesn’t believe drugs or alcohol played a role. CHP spokesperson Craig Carrier said all factors are being looked at, including speed and distracted driving. He said the name of the 16-year-old — neither brother was hurt in the collision — won’t be released, because he’s a juvenile. The Maldonado family has not responded to requests for comment.
Over the last week, as friends and colleagues remember O’Neill for his quiet but tireless support of people with disabilities, questions have been lobbed about the legality around the teen’s driving that evening. Carrier said he’s fielded a number of such concerns and pointed to a section of California Vehicle Code that regulates young drivers who’ve had their license for less than a year: “Persons under the age of 18,” it reads “must be accompanied and supervised by a licensed parent, guardian, or other licensed driver 25 years of age or older” when they “transport passengers under 20 years of age at any time” or “drive between 11 p.m. and 5 a.m.”
Carrier noted that the law allows for a number of exceptions to the restrictions, including for medical necessities, school-authorized activities, or work-related duties. “A signed note must be kept in your possession for any of these exceptions explaining the necessity and the date when the driving necessity will end,” the Vehicle Code states. Carrier said the CHP has still not determined if the driver met the requirements to opt out of the rule. He also said officers allow for some leeway when they catch under-18 violators committing minor infractions, like driving a few minutes after 11 p.m.
Two years ago, Nicolas Maldonado was involved in a fatal accident along the same stretch of road when the Cadillac Escalade his mother was driving was struck by a man high on meth who failed to yield at a cross street. The male driver was killed, and authorities ruled he was at fault for the violent collision. At the time, Abel Maldonado was running for congress.
Last Wednesday, UCSB’s Gevirtz School released a statement about their friend and colleague. “As a person Matt is remembered as witty, intelligent and kind,” said Senior Associate Dean Betsy Brenner. “He was into extreme long distance bicycling events, having traveled from Paris to Normandy in one event, and more recently down the coast of California. I will miss Matt, as will many others here.”
Others told The Independent that while O’Neill had attended law school, he chose to study special education because he wanted to improve the way teachers and administrators interact with the families of people with special needs. Originally from Chula Vista, O’Neill was living in Carpinteria with his girlfriend, who he planned to marry. He also owned a retired guide dog and often gave presentations at Guide Dogs for the Blind conferences.
The Gevirtz School said it will host a memorial event in honor of O’Neill this fall. Details will be announced at a later date. A Facebook page titled “Remember Matthew: Change Lanes to Pass a Cyclist” has been created here.