KOMANOFF: Visit to Site of Matt Travis’s Death Invokes Sadness, Rage

Matt Travis's friends left a memorial at the scene of his death. Photo: Charles Komanoff
Matt Travis's friends left a memorial at the scene of his death. Photo: Charles Komanoff

I went on Saturday to the Manhattan side of the Willis Avenue Bridge, to see where and how aspiring wrestler and Bronx native Matt Travis, age 25, was crushed under a dump truck early on Nov. 9, the previous Saturday.

I wanted clarity.

Streetsblog’s breaking news report had Travis exiting the bridge’s bike path, southbound, when he was slammed by the driver of the dump truck, who was attempting to access the bridge by turning left from a service road parallel to the bridge — technically First Avenue — onto E. 125th Street and then onto the bridge itself. The next day, sports journalist Tom Cleary confirmed that scenario in a post for Heavy.com that was unusually sensitive and resonant.

My visit to the bridge verified those reports while also revealing this stunning detail: the truck driver wasn’t just turning left in defiance of the “All traffic —>” signs. He was making a left buttonhook — an extremely tight U-turn — from the southbound service road to the northbound-only bridge. On his narrow, unprotected strip between the two roadways, Travis didn’t have a chance.

Picture it. Both Travis and the trucker are southbound — Travis on the bike path slightly above the truck on the bridge’s westernmost edge, the trucker on the service road just below slicing through the industrial patch bounded by 125th Street, that First Avenue service road and the Harlem River. The area, walled in by massive highway ramps to the Triborough Bridge and Harlem River Drive, is classic 1950s brutalist concrete.

Now picture it from Travis’s vantage as he descends the bridge’s two-way bike path. In front of him is 125th Street, broad and two-way. To his right, obscured by the concrete wall and metal railing, is the service road with the dump truck.

Coasting down the bridge bike path at speed, Travis is gazing ahead and, likely, scanning left and right for traffic on 125th Street. He’s not looking down to his right as the truck emerges from the service road, and the driver begins to buttonhook left onto 125th St. toward the bridge.

This is the sign that the dump truck driver would have seen. Photo: Google
This is the sign that the dump truck driver would have seen. Photo: Google

No turn could have been more illegal. Signage commands drivers to turn to the right. Not straight ahead, which would be southbound on northbound First Avenue. Not left, into the path of westbound drivers who are exiting the Triborough onto 125th St. And certainly not the tight, buttonhook left onto the bridge that the dump-truck driver actually did.

In an alternate universe, the driver could have U-turned cautiously, even safely, if illegally. He could have inched forward toward the center of 125th St., stopped, looked 360-degrees, and, ever so slowly, joined northbound First Avenue traffic coursing onto the Willis Avenue Bridge. I observed one driver doing just that, a guy in a car taking a full 30 seconds to patiently execute his buttonhook. Maybe he was unusually mindful, seeing the shrine installed by Travis’s friends. Or maybe he was paranoid about the police.

More likely, the dump-truck driver gunned the U-turn — both because he knows it’s illegal and because that’s how dump-truck drivers are permitted to roll in NYC. He may have been looking out for traffic and the NYPD, but not for someone exiting the Willis Avenue Bridge bike path, which he crosses, at speed, straight into Matt Travis.

Born in Mott Haven, just on the Bronx side of the bridge, and living there with his mom when he died, Travis had probably crossed it hundreds of times. If he saw the dump truck at all as he coasted down the bridge, he had every right to assume the driver would obey the law and peel off to the right.

The obvious engineering fix — too late for Travis — to ensure drivers can’t turn left as they exit the service road is to embed plastic bollards with reflective signs in the roadway, just south of the north crosswalk.

Matt Travis. Photo: HOG Wrestling courtesy Heavy.com
Matt Travis. Photo: HOG Wrestling courtesy Heavy.com

In our report, Killed By Automobile, the group Right Of Way documented that New York-area dump truck drivers — the private haulers who ply the ironically named graveyard shift — racked up by far the most pedestrian and cyclist fatal crashes per million miles driven. That was 20 years ago. Not much has changed, as we saw from Kiera Feldman’s detailed 2018 dump-trucking exposé for Pro Publica, Trashed: Inside the Deadly World of Private Garbage Collection. (Piling on the irony, Feldman’s article kicks off with a scene not far from where Travis was killed.)

Like many — most? — of the nearly 30 bicycle-riders killed this year by drivers in New York City, Travis’s life was ended by a truck driver. To fob off these deaths on “more cyclists” (as NYPD Transport Chief Thomas Chan said, as Streetsblog reported) or “more people cycling in transitioning industrial areas” (DOT Commissioner Trottenberg, per the Post) or the “plenty of bicyclists who do not follow the rules and put themselves in danger” (Mayor de Blasio, as Streetsblog revealed) is a profound and utter failing of governance.

The dump-truck driver, who fled the scene, will probably be collared. The carnage will go on.