Federal regulators have ordered a Naperville trucking company off the road, calling the carrier with a history of serious safety violations an "imminent hazard to public safety."
The inquiry into DND International started after trucker Renato Velasquez was charged with breaking transport rules and causing a fiery January wreck that killed an Illinois Tollway worker and injured a state trooper, who remains in intensive care.
In a scathing order, regulators said an investigation had uncovered "an unmistakable, dangerous pattern of serious falsification" by the company's drivers in logbooks that are supposed to assure compliance with rules limiting the amount of time a driver can be on the road without rest.
A Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration investigator concluded that the firm had an "entirely ineffective" disciplinary process and showed "reckless disregard" for hours-of-service rules, according to documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act.
DND's disciplinary program "sends a message to drivers not to get caught violating FMCSA rules but fails to facilitate any realistic attempt by the company to establish a legitimate safety culture," safety investigator Charles Bunting wrote in his report.
David LaPorte, an attorney for DND, said the company has taken steps to address the safety concerns and plans to ask for permission to resume operation. The decision to pull DND truckers off America's highways took immediate effect, and LaPorte said drivers and loads are scattered across the country.
In a statement, U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said ordering companies off the road is necessary when they repeatedly disregard safety rules.
"Federal rules limiting the hours that commercial truck and bus drivers can be on the job serve to protect everyone traveling on our highways and roads," Foxx said. "Companies that sidestep and disregard these regulations and needlessly expose the motoring public to harm will not be allowed to operate."
The regulators contend that the company's failure to monitor its drivers' time on duty was "a key contributing factor" in the wreck near Aurora on Interstate 88 that killed Illinois Tollway laborer Vincent Petrella and injured Trooper Douglas Balder.
Investigators said Velasquez falsified his logbook on four days in the week leading up to the Jan. 27 wreck, and records show that he and other DND drivers frequently ignored rules of the road. Velasquez, who lives in Hanover Park, was an independent contractor who drove for DND.
The company racked up tickets across the country and ranks among the nation's worst 12 percent of carriers in its class in the key safety categories of unsafe driving and hours-of-service compliance, according to the FMCSA. But at the time of the crash, the firm was rated "satisfactory" by the government.
The FMCSA determined that the company "has no effective system in place" to ensure that drivers comply with hours-of-service rules and has refused to implement checks when possible.
"DND International's drivers routinely travel on Illinois Toll Roads, but DND International refuses to compare toll transaction information to its drivers' logs to monitor hours-of-service compliance," the order said.
Federal investigators used data from the Tollway to check the accuracy of logbooks submitted by Velasquez and six other DND drivers. All seven drivers had fudged on their logs, the government found.
LaPorte said DND signed a contract last week to purchase electronic logbooks and replace the paper ones used by its drivers. Proponents of the e-logs, long required in the European Union but resisted by some in the United States, say they make it harder for drivers to lie about their duty time.
Velasquez's wreck occurred near the end of a marathon run from the Chicago area to Nebraska and back, a trek of roughly 1,000 miles that took more than 26 hours and included stops to drop off a load in Omaha and pick up another in Iowa. The federal agency found that during that window, Velasquez had less than six hours of break time.
Truckers' shifts can last only 14 hours, federal rules dictate, and only 11 of those hours can be spent driving. A 10-hour break is required between shifts. The limits are designed to keep drowsy truckers off the road.
LaPorte said company officials didn't know Velasquez had been on the road so long without sufficient rest.
In order to have the indefinite suspension lifted, DND International will have to submit an eight-part plan to the government explaining how it will ensure compliance with specific rules or pursue an administrative hearing.
The out-of-service order issued Tuesday follows a compliance review that was completed in late March in which DND was recommended for a downgrade from "satisfactory" to "conditional" status.
Bunting, the investigator, noted in his report that a "focused investigation" of the company had been ordered in August, but he gave no indication of whether such an action was ever launched.
The last time that federal regulators conducted a compliance review of DND, in 2011, the company was flagged for a rating downgrade and was instructed to fix several deficiencies, including problems complying with hours-of-service rules.
DND eventually corrected those issues and received a satisfactory rating, records show.
Balder, a trooper since 2007, remains in intensive care at an area hospital, his lawyer, Elizabeth Kaveny, said Wednesday. He suffered injuries including burns and broken bones and has undergone at least six surgeries, the attorney said.
Kaveny said the Balder family "couldn't be more thrilled" by the federal government's decision to take the trucking company out of service.
"With the history of DND, it's appropriate, and we're glad to see an agency taking such a strong and appropriate action," Kaveny said.
The crash occurred about 9:45 p.m. on a cold January night. Balder and Petrella had stopped to help the driver of a broken-down truck — parking their vehicles on parts of the right lane and shoulder of the tollway — when Velasquez plowed into Balder's cruiser. The driver of the broken-down truck was not injured, police said at the time.
Petrella, a father who had worked his way up from toll collector to equipment operator at the Tollway, was killed in the accident. His family declined through lawyers to comment for this story.
Balder was rushed to Loyola University Medical Center in critical condition. Kaveny said the father of two and Navy reservist was kept sedated and unconscious for weeks because of third-degree burns.
In the wreck's aftermath, Sen. Dick Durbin was among those who called for regulators to examine DND's practices.
"The investigation confirmed my suspicions that the problems with this trucking company are putting travelers at risk every day," the Illinois Democrat said Wednesday in a statement. "I am happy that the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration took swift action to take these trucks off the road."