Fatal crash's impact will resonate beyond the courtroom

Crash that killed tollway worker, injured state trooper could lead to new law

The impact of a January 2014 crash that killed a tollway worker and seriously injured a state trooper along Interstate 88 near Aurora likely will resonate beyond the trial that starts this week, thanks to legislation now being pushed in Springfield.

Truck driver Renato Velasquez, 46, of Hanover Park is set to stand trial Tuesday in DuPage County on charges he operated a commercial motor vehicle while fatigued or impaired and made a false report of his record and duty status.

Prosecutors say at the time of the crash Velasquez had slept for only 3½ hours during a 37½-hour shift in which he traveled through Illinois, Nebraska and Iowa before returning to the Chicago area.

He's also charged with failure to reduce speed to avoid an accident and failure to yield to stationary emergency vehicles.

If convicted, Velasquez faces a maximum of three years in prison. Some have questioned whether that's a stiff enough penalty.

While it's too late to affect this case, state Sen. Chris Nybo, an Elmhurst Republican, moved to address such concerns Friday by filing legislation that, if adopted, would increase the penalty for any driver who “willfully violates regulations pertaining to motor carrier drivers' hours of service when the violation was a proximate cause of great bodily harm or death to another person.”

The proposed legislation would upgrade the offense from a Class 4 felony to a Class 3 felony, increasing the sentencing range to a maximum of five years in prison. The legislation also targets employers who support truckers who falsify their logs.

Federal regulations forbid truckers from driving more than 11 hours in a 14-hour period. The regulations say truck drivers then must take 10 consecutive hours off before returning to duty.

To ensure compliance with the law, truck drivers and the companies they work for must keep driving logs that can be reviewed by state and federal authorities.

The Velasquez crash occurred about 9:45 p.m. Jan. 27, 2014, when state Trooper Douglas Balder and tollway worker Vincent Petrella were helping with a disabled semitrailer on eastbound I-88 near Eola Road in Aurora.

Authorities said both Petrella and Balder were sitting inside their parked vehicles, which had flashing emergency lights, when they were struck by a truck driven by Velasquez.

Petrella, a Wheeling resident, was killed. Balder suffered 13 broken ribs, a broken left scapula and severe burns over his entire left side.

Last month, Balder and his wife, Kimberli, urged DuPage County State's Attorney Robert Berlin to increase the charges against Velasquez to include reckless homicide. Berlin said at the time it's his duty to “only bring charges that can be substantiated in a court of law.”

Rather than seek stiffer charges in this case, Berlin sought legislative relief for future cases.

Berlin declined to comment on his office's 2015 legislative agenda, but Nybo said Friday that he filed his proposed bill on Berlin's behalf.

“(Berlin) believes he was not able to bring the more stringent charges he would have liked in this case and he asked me to file this bill on his behalf to correct this statutorily,” Nybo said.

Nybo said Friday's filing has no connection to the timing of Tuesday's trial, but everything to do with the crash that triggered it.

“There is definitely a connection. My state's attorney feels the current books are not strong enough to have dealt with this situation,” Nybo said. “If my state's attorney makes a request, I'm very inclined to support his thoughts and help him out. He's the expert.”

Velasquez's attorney, Steven Goldman of Wheeling, did not return a call seeking comment Friday.

Velasquez's bench trial is scheduled to begin at 10 a.m. Tuesday before Judge Robert Kleeman in courtroom 4012.

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Truck driver Renato Velasquez, right, with Attorney Steven Goldman, pleaded not guilty to several charges in March 2014. He is accused of driving a semitrailer in January 2014 that struck emergency vehicles along I-88, killing an Illinois Tollway worker and injuring a state trooper. Chuck Berman/Chicago Tribune, pool
  Attorney Elizabeth Kaveny speaks during a news conference at the DuPage courthouse last month advocating for the filing of reckless homicide charges against Renato Velasquez. At left are Kim Balder and her husband, Doug Balder, the state trooper who was severely injured in the crash that killed tollway worker Vincent Petrella. Daniel White/
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