Road Worrier Blog

August 18, 2014

Road Worrier: GM recall validates son's excuse for NC head-on crash; Ma eats crow

Faulty ignition switches have caused GM cars to cut off while moving down the road, with power steering and brakes sometimes disabled. Lillian Leroux of Cary realized this year that her son wasn't lying when he explained why he crashed the family Pontiac in 2012.

The radio died. The dashboard went dark. The power steering quit. And BAM!

Joey Leroux says his Pontiac failed him just for a second, and just at the worst possible moment.

His parents let him down at a tough time, too, after his head-on crash two years ago on N.C. 50 north of Raleigh. Both cars were totaled, and the other driver was hospitalized. But when Joey tried to explain how it happened, his mother called him a liar.

“He said it felt like the car had shut off,” said Lillian Leroux, now 49, of Cary. “He couldn’t steer the car. And he wound up hitting another car. He said, ‘Ma, I couldn’t control it.’

“I said, ‘Yeah, sure.’ My husband said he was full of crap. We didn’t believe him.”

They changed their minds a few weeks ago. That’s when they read the Road Worrier’s column about the 17 million cars General Motors has recalled this year to fix faulty ignition switches.

The bad ignitions have been blamed for scores of crashes and 16 deaths since 2001. The cars sometimes cut off while they’re moving down the road. Brakes, lights, power steering and sometimes airbags are disabled.

Hey, that sounded familiar. So Joey’s dad, Andrew Leroux, dug out a GM recall notice – which he received in April, and ignored – for their 2007 Pontiac G5. The car had been junked two years earlier after Joey’s wreck, and after Joey’s parents scoffed at an excuse that no longer sounds implausible.

“And my husband said, ‘Maybe he wasn’t lying,’ ” Lillian said.

Joey Leroux, now 25 and living in Durham, was driving to work in Wake Forest a little before sunrise that morning in March 2012. Suddenly there was a black Jeep coming toward him on N.C. 50, a narrow, hilly road lined with deep ditches.

He swerved halfway onto the narrow shoulder. Then, to keep from crashing into a creek, he cut the wheel sharply back to the left.

That’s when he says that his lights, radio and steering went dead. He missed the Jeep but veered into the oncoming lane, striking a Honda head-on.

Joey thinks he could have avoided crossing the center line if he had not lost power steering just after he turned his wheel to the left. He was unable to wrestle the car back into his lane.

“I turned to correct myself, and everything shut off,” Joey said. “Like, for a second. Just long enough for me to hit another car and end up in the ditch.

“It was like the alternator went and the battery died. It all happened within a flash. Everything was fine, I was correcting. Then it felt like the tire didn’t want to turn at all.”

The power failure must have been brief. Joey’s airbag went off on impact. When his car came to rest in the right-side ditch, the lights were on again and the radio was playing.

Joey suffered only bumps and bruises. The other driver, Omegia Black of Oxford, now 53, had cracked ribs and injuries to her knees. She says she was unable to work for three months and still needs physical therapy for her shoulder.

The Highway Patrol crash report didn’t mention the black Jeep or Joey’s excuse about the power steering failure. He was charged with driving left of center and without a license, because his license had been suspended a few months earlier.

Lillian asked the Road Worrier for advice about how to set things right.

The Road Worrier’s second suggestion was: Call your insurance agents. They’re out a lot of money because of this crash.

General Motors has set up a settlement fund for ignition-related accidents involving serious injury and death. But the Lerouxes’ insurance company decided not to bother trying to recover damages.

And the first suggestion to Lillian Leroux was: Ask your son to forgive you.

She did that already. It wasn’t easy.

“It’s not really good, eating crow,” Lillian laughed. “It doesn’t go down so well when you swallow. I had to apologize to Joey. We literally called him a liar to his face.”

Joey is still unhappy about how General Motors kept silent about the faulty ignitions for a decade before finally recalling the defective cars this year.

But he’s glad his crash caused no life-threatening injuries, and glad finally that his ma has apologized for doubting him.

“I told her, ‘It’s nice, now, that you believe,’ ” Joey said.

CLARIFICATION: Previous versions of this article used the word "alibi" where "excuse" would have been more precise. Change made on Tuesday, Aug. 19, 2014.

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