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Family of I-55 crash victim calls for federal investigation

Published: Tuesday, Sept. 2, 2014 12:46 p.m. CST • Updated: Tuesday, Sept. 2, 2014 8:52 p.m. CST

CHANNAHON – The family of one of the victims in the July 21 fatal chain-reaction crash on Interstate 55 is calling for a federal investigation into a vision waiver granted to the truck driver accused of reckless homicide in the collision.

Francisco Espinal-Quiroz, of Leesburg, Indiana, was granted a vision waiver from the federal government that was renewed the day before the crash. The waiver allowed him to drive a commercial truck despite being legally blind in one eye.

That exemption is administered by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration.

On Tuesday, the family of one of the crash victims called for a federal investigation into the vision exemption program and the circumstances surrounding Espinal-Quiroz's waiver.

Frank Andreano, the attorney who represents the family of Ulrike Blopleh, a 48-year-old Channahon woman who was one of five people killed, also sent a letter on Tuesday to U.S. Rep. Adam Kinzinger, R-Channahon, requesting the waiver be investigated.

An investigation could look into what factors were considered when determining whether Espinal-Quiroz was safe to drive and whether the vision exemption program is safe, Andreano said.

“How do they make a determination that a particular driver is safe? There's vision standards, but they don't say what it is you have to prove in order to get an exemption,” Andreano said. “There's no objective testing criteria that the optometrist takes to ascertain whether or not that person actually in fact can drive a motor vehicle.”

Representatives from the FMCSA and Kinzinger's office were not immediately available for comment Tuesday.

The federal government's vision exemption program has been in place since 1992. The program allows truckers with vision impairments to legally drive semitrailers — provided they gain approval from an eye doctor and demonstrate a safe driving record.

Espinal-Quiroz, who completely lost vision in his right eye due to a traumatic injury sustained in 1984, was first granted a vision waiver in 2006, according to a posting on FMCSA's website.

After a 2005 examination, his optometrist, who is unnamed, noted that Espinal-Quiroz “has excellent vision in his left eye,” according to FMCSA documents. “I feel that he has sufficient vision to perform the driving tasks required to operate a commercial vehicle.”

The optometrist also noted that Espinal-Quiroz reported he had 14 years driving experience and that his driving record for the last three years showed “no crashes or convictions” for moving violations in a commercial motor vehicle.

Indiana Bureau of Motor Vehicles records show Espinal-Quiroz was cited in 2006 for driving a commercial vehicle without a proper license. Around this time, he was also cited three times for non-serious violations — once in 2006 and twice in 2005, according to records obtained from the Indiana bureau. Espinal-Quiroz has a history of traffic violations that date back to 1991, including three speeding tickets since 2012.

The most recent batch of FMCSA's vision exemptions, listed Aug. 29 on the agency's website, name the individuals requesting vision exemptions and the reasons they are granted.

For decades, highway safety advocacy groups have complained to the FMCSA that the program is unsafe.

Henry Jasny, vice president and general counsel for Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, said the program is like “playing roulette with public safety.”

All states require that commercial truck drivers have no worse than 20/40 vision in both eyes, Jasny said, but the program allows for exemptions to drivers — even those legally blind in one eye.

“We don’t' think that the program itself is a good program. The idea of granting drivers exemption from a safety rule on the basis of, 'Well, we think they're OK,' is an ad hoc and not a safe way to run federal standards,” Jasny said. “We think that if they feel they can change the vision standard and lower it, then they should do that, and they've never been able to.”

The scary part, Jasny said, is that a federal investigation “will probably find” that FMCSA “hasn't violated” any law and that Espinal-Quiroz was properly screened and legally allowed into the program. It's unclear whether Espinal-Quiroz's blindness in one eye caused the accident. Prosecutors have cited several possible factors, including speeding and fatigue.

In the reckless homicide indictment returned last week against Espinal-Quiroz, the Will County State's Attorney's office alleged that he had physical conditions that limited his ability to drive safely. He is being held in lieu of a $1 million bond. His next court appearance is scheduled for 9:30 a.m. Sept. 9.

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