A truck driver charged with killing five people in a July crash on Interstate 55 had just been granted a renewed permit by the federal government, allowing him to drive commercial trucks across the country even though he was completely blind in one eye, NBC 5 Investigates has learned.
Now the family of one of the crash victims is asking a local congressman to review the federal program that allows visually-impaired truck drivers on interstate highways.
Francisco Espinal-Quiroz, 51, of Leesburg, Indiana, was indicted last week on 15 counts of reckless homicide - along with additional charges that he falsified his work hours -- after the July 21 chain-reaction crash near Arsenal Road in Channahon. Will County prosecutors claim Espinal-Quiroz was speeding through a construction zone, he failed to keep a proper lookout for vehicles and that he "had physical conditions that limited his ability to drive safely."
Espinal-Quiroz is completely blind in his right eye, due to an injury in 1984.
The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) -- the division of the U.S. Department of Transportation which regulates commercial trucking -- has several programs that allow drivers with certain physical or medical issues to operate trucks and drive them across state lines, as long as they can pass certain fitness tests and standards.
One such program is the Vision Exemption Program, which the FMCSA says is for "drivers with a vision deficiency in one eye who have demonstrated at least three years of safe driving experience operating a commercial motor vehicle [within the state] where they received their license." A driver who can meet a series of specific safety criteria can get a waiver, or exemption, from the government, which allows them to drive commercial trucks from state to state. The exemption must be renewed every two years.
An FMSCA spokesman says that there are currently about 2,500 interstate commercial truck drivers operating with these vision exemptions, nationwide.
Government records show that Espinal-Quiroz was granted his first vision waiver in 2006, and regularly got it renewed every two years. His most recent renewal went in to effect on July 20, 2014 -- just one day before the accident on Interstate 55.
"The agency [FMCSA] is doing an experiment on public highways with people's lives," says Henry Jasny, Vice President and General Counsel for Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, a Washington D.C.-based group that has been critical of the vision waiver process. Jasny says the FMCSA needs to create tougher standards for visually-impaired truck drivers so that fewer exemptions are granted.
Specifically, Jasny argues that a truck driver should have no worse than 20/40 vision in his or her bad eye -- which would prohibit drivers such as Espinal-Quiroz from ever getting the federally-issued waiver. Currently, drivers must submit evidence that the vision in their "better eye" meets certain federal requirements, and that the condition that affects the bad eye is stable.
Espinal-Quiroz's most recent waiver-renewal was published in the Federal Register this past June, along with the names of 35 other truck drivers who were requesting renewal for vision waivers. The FMCSA routinely posts these names in the Federal Register about a month in advance, in order to allow the public to comment on the process. Once that process is complete, the waivers go in to effect.
Now the family of one of the July 21 victims wants their local congressman to push for a review of the FMCSA's Vision Exemption Program.
Joliet attorney Frank Andreano represents the family of 48-year-old Ulrike Blopleh, who was killed in the crash while driving home with three of her four children after a day of picking blueberries. Andreano has written to U.S. Rep. Adam Kinzinger requesting an investigation into how Espinal-Quiroz was able to get a renewal of his vision waiver.
"Renewals are being granted without the disclosures mandated by [the law]," Andreano writes, "and without a set criteria for the granting of vision exceptions ... It remains unclear how the Agency made the determination that Espinal could operate safely."
In addition, Andreano and the Blopleh family have filed civil suit against Espinal-Quiroz, as has the family of Vicky L. Palaciocs, 54, another victim of the crash.
"Someone who has monocular vision, has both depth perception issues and peripheral vision issues and driving an 80,000-pound vehicle, I think it calls into question, 'Can this person do it safely?'" Blopeh said.
In early August the FMCSA suspended the operating authority for Espinal Trucking, the Indiana-based company owned by Espinal-Quiroz, which consisted of just the single truck that he was driving on the day of the crash. According to the FMCSA their suspension was for "failing to cooperate in an investigation of the carrier's compliance with federal safety regulations," and had nothing to do with Espinal-Quoroz's vision waiver.