Dueling Air Bags Allow Two Virginia Drivers to Walk Away from a Horrifying Head-on Collision

updated 04/23/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 04/23/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

It was a sunny Monday afternoon in Culpeper, Va., as Ronnie Woody headed west on Route 640 in his brand-new Chrysler LeBaron. Coming in the opposite direction on the two-lane road was Priscilla Van Steelant, also driving a Chrysler LeBaron. According to the police report, Van Steelant, 39, strayed over the unmarked center of the road and smashed into Woody head-on, the two cars colliding at an estimated combined speed of 70 mph. "I saw a car coming down the wrong side of the road," says Woody, 22, a construction worker. "I thought, 'Surely she's going to get out of the way.' The next thing I remember is some guy asking me if I was all right."

Amazingly, he was, as was Van Steelant. Woody escaped with a cut on his elbow and a bruised knee, while Van Steelant had a bloody nose and various minor bruises. Paramedics who arrived expecting a difficult rescue found it hard to believe that both drivers had walked away from a potentially fatal crash. "They said to me, 'Where's the driver?' " reports Van Steelant. "I said, 'I am the driver.' I had to argue with them, to convince them I was the driver."

Woody and Van Steelant owe their miraculous escape to air bags that inflated in½5th of a second. This was the first head-on crash in which both cars were equipped with the air bags. Consumer groups have long pressured automakers to install air bags in all cars. Chrysler has been a leader, equipping all their domestically produced cars with driver-side air bags. Both Woody, who wasn't wearing a seat belt, and Van Steelant, who had buckled up, are living proof of air bags' effectiveness. "You can't make everybody wear a seat belt, but you can put an air bag in every car," says Woody.

While both are thankful to be alive, Woody is in better shape than Van Steelant. On March 30 he received a check for $17,651 from Priscilla's insurance company and promptly replaced his demolished car with a new LeBaron. Van Steelant was charged with failure to keep right of center and will go to court on April 26 to answer charges. At least she'll be able to walk into the courtroom.

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