Deadly crash involving Urbana family puts safety push into question

Deadly crash involving Urbana family puts safety push into question

A self-employed semitractor trailer driver who killed an Urbana family of three and two others on a northern Illinois highway this summer lost all vision in his right eye three decades ago.

And according to authorities, when Francisco Espinal-Quiroz's red 2004 Freightliner plowed into a passenger vehicle stopped in a construction zone on July 21, causing a multi-vehicle pile-up, he had been working nearly a 12-hour shift.

Some of the victims' loved ones were shocked to learn that the 51-year-old Leesburg, Ind., man was driving a semi with one blind eye — and that it was perfectly legal.

The tragedy and resulting criminal charges against Espinal-Quiroz are raising new questions about both the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration's Vision Exemption Program, which allows visually-impaired commercial truck drivers on the nation's interstate highway system, and, some say, underscore the need for more measures to better enforce driver service hour compliance and improve road safety.

"To me, it doesn't seem like a safe practice to be behind the wheel of a large commercial vehicle when you can only see out of one eye," said Joliet-based attorney Frank Andreano, who represents one victim's family in a civil action against Espinal-Quiroz and his company, Espinal Trucking. "When you put together someone who has limited vision, who is over his allotted driving time and who may be fatigued, that's a prescription for a disaster."

"An accident like that makes it hard on all of us," said Tom Franey, owner of Champaign-based Tom Franey Trucking.

The deadly crash occurred around 2:30 p.m. in the northbound lanes of Interstate 55 near Elwood in Will County.

Four people died at the scene — Vicky Palacios, 54, of Coal City; Ulrike Blopleh, 48, of Channahon; Kimberly Britton, 43, of Urbana; and her 11-year-old daughter, Piper Britton. Ms. Britton's husband and Piper's father — Timothy Osburn, 64 — died from his injuries at a Maywood hospital 16 days later.

On Aug. 28, a Will County grand jury indicted Espinal-Quiroz on 15 counts of reckless homicide and two counts of falsifying his commercial driver's record.

Prosecutors allege he was speeding through a construction zone, failed to keep a proper lookout for slowing or stopped vehicles, failed to slow down when a special hazard existed and had physical conditions — complete loss of vision in his right eye due to a 1984 injury — that limited his ability to drive safely.

They also allege he altered his driving log to make it appear as if he started work later in the day than he actually did. Espinal-Quiroz initially told police his shift started at 6 a.m., but later confessed it actually began at 2:30 a.m.

Under federal law, commercial truck drivers are limited to working 14 hours — a maximum of 11 behind the wheel — a day.

If convicted of the more serious charge of reckless homicide, Espinal-Quiroz — whom prosecutors said has a history of traffic violations since 1991, three of which involved speeding — could be sentenced to anywhere from six to 28 years in prison.

He is behind bars on a $1 million bond and awaiting his next pretrial hearing, which is set for Oct. 22.

On Aug. 8, the FMCSA — the U.S. Department of Transportation's division that regulates commercial trucking — suspended Espinal Trucking after the firm refused to turn records over to investigators, a violation of the law.

'Breach of public trust'

On the afternoon that Mrs. Blopleh was killed, the mother of four and her three eldest — ages 12, 13 and 16 — were heading home from a farm in southern Will County, Andreano said. They'd gone there to pick blueberries.

A month later, Andreano filed a personal injury suit on behalf of the woman's husband and the children who were injured to varying degrees. Then, he wrote Illinois Congressman Adam Kinzinger, R-Channahon, urging him to put the vision exemption program under a microscope.

The FMCSA says the program is for "qualifying drivers with a vision deficiency in one eye, who have demonstrated at least three years of safe driving experience operating a commercial motor vehicle in the state where they received their license."

Drivers can qualify for a waiver to drive from state to state as long as they meet certain criteria. Those include no accidents resulting in a citation for a moving violation and no convictions for a disqualifying offense, such as a DUI or excessive speeding. They also must pass an exam by an ophthalmologist or optometrist, who will certify they have sufficient vision to operate a commercial vehicle.

Under guidelines, the vision in the better eye must be at least 20/40 with corrective lenses, and drivers must also be able to recognize the colors of traffic signals and devices showing green, yellow and red.

Some 2,500 drivers are operating under a vision exemption, FMCSA Spokeswoman Marissa Padilla said. Since the program began in 1999, she added, the agency has denied more than 4,000 requests.

Espinal-Quiroz was granted an exemption in 2006 and has been awarded a renewal every two years since — most recently on July 20, the day before the I-55 accident.

"As part of Mr. Espinal-Quiroz's most recent renewal process, FMCSA reviewed his most up-to-date driving record and an optometrist's report verifying that the vision in his left eye was 20/15 (better than 20/20), uncorrected, with a field of vision of 120 degrees," Padilla said.

But Andreano questioned those standards in a strongly worded letter to Kinzinger. The congressman's office has been in communication with the U.S. House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee and FMCSA, according to spokesman Zach Hunter. "We are examining all options for ways we can help find answers to the questions these families have about their losses," Hunter told The News-Gazette in an email.

Three safety advocacy groups — the Truck Safety Coalition, Citizens for Reliable and Safe Highways and Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety — are also calling for a program re-evaluation.

"It's not clear as to what the standards are and how (exemptions) are being granted," said John Lannen, executive director of the Truck Safety Coalition.

"The issues aren't isolated either," Lannen said, pointing to the allegations that Espinal-Quiroz drove over the daily limit, then doctored his log to avoid detection. "On paper ... and if you're driving in ideal conditions, it may sound fine. But in reality, there's traffic congestion, bad weather, driver fatigue, other hazards. When someone is operating an 80,000-pound vehicle, they need to be held to a very high standard to ensure public safety."

Furthermore, the three groups accused the agency of "seriously" misrepresenting facts and misleading the public regarding a contracted study of truck drivers with vision exemptions, upon which it based a proposal to lower the prior driving-experience criterion from three years to one.

"This serious breach of public trust ... should be investigated by your office immediately," they wrote agency Administrator Anne Ferro.

'We're tired'

Padilla contends that the July 21 accident more likely stemmed not from Espinal-Quiroz's vision impairment but from another factor — driver fatigue.

In July 2013, the FMCSA enacted new provisions designed to reduce driver fatigue, an issue that led to 317,000 crashes involving large trucks in 2012 alone.

The new rules state:

— The maximum average work week for truckers is 70 hours, down from 82 previously.

— Drivers who reach the maximum 70 are required to rest for 34 consecutive hours — including from 1 a.m. to 5 a.m. on at least two nights — before they can resume driving.

— They must also take a 30-minute break after the first eight hours of a shift.

The changes drew mixed reaction around the industry.

The 34-hour rule meant Raymond Britt spent nearly a day and a half this week almost 700 miles from his Concord, N.C., home, sleeping in his Ashley Furniture truck and watching movies on his Kindle at the Pilot Travel Center just off I-74 in Oakwood. Instead of limiting drivers, Britt argues, companies should trust their decisions and legislators should stay out of their way.

"Until you sit up there in my passenger seat for two weeks, you won't have a clue what it is like," he said. "I think there should be truck drivers making rules for truck drivers, not some politician up in Washington who's never slept in a truck, who's never been in a truck, who couldn't even tell you how to drive a truck."

Leaving the decision up to drivers would only lead to more dangerous roads, counters Junior Anderson, a 33-year-old United Van Lines driver from St. Louis, Mo.

"Sometimes drivers tend to think 'We're not tired.' Well, we're tired," Anderson said during a break Thursday in Oakwood. "You don't want to keep driving when you're tired because sooner or later you're going to find yourself in a situation where you can get into a wreck. There's a lot of drivers that still drive when they aren't well-rested."

To enforce the new rules of the road, agency investigators and local law enforcement review drivers' logbooks during random roadside inspections and investigations, Padilla said. "To help ensure their accuracy, they also review other supporting items like gas receipts and toll records."

Companies that allow drivers to exceed the limits by more than three hours face fines of $11,000 per offense. Drivers face penalties of up to $2,750 per offense.

'A whole new outlook'

In March, the FMCSA proposed mandating the use of electronic logging devices by the 2.8 million or so commercial truck and bus drivers. Padilla said the public comment period closed this summer, and the agency hopes to finalize the rule in 2015. Enforcement would begin two years after the rule is published in the federal register.

Critics complain that the more regulations that are put in, the more likely it is that drivers will be pushed out.

Many of them are paid by the mile, and the more miles they drive, the more money they make, former trucker-turned-driving school owner Steve Gold said. "The driver tries to drive as much as he can. Unfortunately, that can lead to not getting enough sleep and fatigue."

Gold said many subpar companies and drivers left the industry when the FMCSA rolled out an updated version of its Compliance, Safety and Accountability measurement tool a few years ago. It's a systematic way to track and publish companies' safety problems.

"Big trucking companies basically terminated a number of drivers who they didn't think were safe to make their fleets safer," he said, adding it has been estimated about 200,000 commercial truck drivers, or 7 percent, were eliminated in 2011 and '12.

Gold said he established 160 Driving Academy — which has five schools in the state, including one on Parkland College's campus — to properly train the next wave of drivers, who will step into the 400,000 or so available jobs.

Gold's instructors dedicate most of the program's 40-hour classroom portion to learning the statutes and how to fill out logbooks and record runs.

"We try to overemphasize that as much as we can," he said. "Hopefully, we help them understand the consequences, and they leave school knowing this is serious business. They're taking on a large responsibility."

Others believe the changes are improving the industry and making the roads safer for everyone.

Franey, who uses his 25-vehicle fleet mostly to haul petroleum, said he can't afford to have anything but knowledgeable, responsible, experienced drivers.

"We are transporting hazardous materials on public roadways," he said. "If one of my drivers is tired, and I make sure they communicate that to me, I send them home and make sure they get that rest, even if they still have available time to work.

"The industry is changing, and there's kind of a whole new outlook. Safety is the No. 1 priority. I don't want to have to call someone's wife and tell them their husband is hurt. There's no load that's worth having to make that call."

Safety first

Last year, the U.S. Dept. of Transportation introduced new rules of the road for truck drivers, aimed at preventing fatigue, which it said was a leading cause in a staggering number of accidents. In 2012 alone, there were:

317,000

traffic crashes involving large trucks — or 868 a day

3,921

fatalities — or 11 a day.

73,000

crashes that resulted injury — or 200 a day.

News-Gazette staff writer Nicole Lafond contributed to this report

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