Will Your Avalanche Airbag Save Your Life?

Post by WildSnow.com blogger | October 13, 2015      
The best triggering test is done in the field. Tony finds the pull easy and the results gratifying.

Just how much safer does your airbag make you?

An old maxim says “no research is better than bad research.” Thus, I’ve tended to ignore industry sponsored and otherwise suspect studies on how effective avalanche airbags really are. Instead, my gut has been my guide.

All I had to do was look at the dismal and well proven metrics that show being buried in an avalanche is often a death sentence — stats that show the best shovels and beacons might not make much difference. At risk of stating the obvious: NOT being buried is key. So, how not to be entrained if you do get caught in a slide? It’s obvious to most backcountry skiers that airbags can do the trick; avoiding burial by floating you in the debris flow. Yes, airbag behavior is indeed well proven by both real-world testing, observation, and physics (Brazil nut effect).

Backcountry skiing avalanche airbag backpacks.

Cick for our airbag backpacks index.

Yet individuals using airbags still die in avalanches.

Thus, avalanche airbags are no more a panacea than ski helmets are to head injuries, begging the question: assuming the airbag CAN SOMETIMES save your life, just how likely is that wonderful occurrence, in comparison to leaving your balloon at home?

At the Colorado Snow and Avalanche Workshop a few days ago, Dr. Pascal Haegeli presented his 2014 epidemiology study of avalanche airbag effectiveness. Haegeli was convincing. His conclusions? Your risk of deadly avalanche burial is reduced about 11 percentage points, from 22% to 11%, if you’re wearing an inflated balloon pack while caught in a slide large enough to bury you.

Dr. Pascal Haegeli, Colorado Snow Avalanche Workshop, 2015.

Dr. Pascal Haegeli, Colorado Snow Avalanche Workshop, 2015.

Here is the summary from the abstract at Resuscitation Journal: Binomial linear regression models showed main effects for airbag use, avalanche size and injuries on critical burial, and for grade of burial, injuries and avalanche size on mortality. The adjusted risk of critical burial is 47% with non-inflated airbags and 20% with inflated airbags. The adjusted mortality is 44% for critically buried victims and 3% for non-critically buried victims. The adjusted absolute mortality reduction for inflated airbags is ?11 percentage points (22% to 11%; 95% confidence interval: ?4 to ?18 percentage points) and adjusted risk ratio is 0.51 (95% confidence interval: 0.29 to 0.72). Overall non-inflation rate is 20%, 60% of which is attributed to deployment failure by the user.

Haegeli explained that his study was done the same way medical treatments are evaluated. You use a control group and a treatment group, then compare outcomes. The challenge regarding airbags, and the possible flaw in this study, is that Haegeli and his colleagues had to actively pick the avalanche accidents they included in their study instead of using random double-blind groups of “patients.” The selection process sounded rather complex, idea being they went out and found accidents involving large enough avalanches to bury and kill a person. They then compared one group of accidents wherein airbags were used, and another set of accidents without airbags.

Interestingly “non-deployment remains the most considerable limitation to effectiveness.” Haegeli and his fellow boffins found an airbag non-inflation rate of 20%, over half of which was caused by the user failing to trigger (with the remainder caused by mechanical failure or damage.) While encouraging, the 11 percentage point increase in survival is said to not be as good as that reported in other studies which leads me to some thoughts regarding airbags that didn’t work.

First, one wonders if they wrapped the user-error non inflations back into their numbers and counted a percentage of them as imaginary saves, would that bring these numbers back up to those of other studies? In real life, it’s stunning that about 10% of the time someone gets killed while wearing a balloon pack, it could be the fault of user error in not pulling the cord! This makes a very very strong case for practicing inflations and being sure your airbag trigger and hand glove combination work easily together — and that you do NOT HESITATE to trigger if you’re caught in a slide.

Second, those pesky leg straps. I can count in the hundreds the number of people I’ve seen skiing in avy terrain, all prettied up with helmets, airbags, beacons and on and on, who did not have their leg-crotch straps fastened. In his presentation, Haegeli related an example of a death while wearing inflated airbag, caused by the user not using his leg straps and the airbag backpack riding up under his armpits, pinning his arms, with the sternum strap strangling him.

Third and perhaps most import: elephant in the room is that avalanches are violent — some (if not most) so violent an airbag is not going to save you. This is especially true in terrain where the slide could do one or all of the following: 1) Cause you to essentially fall down a mountain; 2) Cause you to collide at high speed with immovable objects such as trees or sharp objects that puncture the balloon; 3) Be so large and violent that trauma from the moving snow itself is deadly.

Considering the above, airbags will never be 100% effective. But you can enhance the protection of your airbag pack by doing a couple of things. Mainly, be sure you can and will trigger your balloon immediately — at the slightest hint of an avalanche. Perhaps as importantly, be terrain aware. Airbags are obviously remarkably effective (see countless Youtube videos) in moderate to smaller slides without terrain trauma issues such as trees. Thus, perhaps airbag users need to shift traditional terrain management. For example, a group of skiers sporting airbag backpacks could be wiser choosing a somewhat larger yet open bowl, as opposed to a smaller yet timbered or rock studded ski run. “Let’s ski the trees!” might not be the wisest choice.

With 100% airbag use by skiers in avalanche terrain, along with wise route choices, perhaps Pascal Haegeli’s next study will show a much more remarkable increase in avalanche survival.


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46 Responses to “Will Your Avalanche Airbag Save Your Life?”

  1. Andrew October 13th, 2015 10:15 am

    Airbags may give you 11 basis points more security when you are caught in a slide, but conversely, you are probably 50 basis points more likely to ski dicey terrain if you are wearing one. It is very common to be standing at the top of a powder run and see people deploying their Avalung tubes for a few quick test puffs or pulling out the trigger on their avalanche bag to make sure it is front and center, which begs the question: if you think there is even a remote possibility of the slope sliding, why are you skiing it in the first place?

    I’ve owned 5-6 airbags over the years and one of the main reasons I seldom ski with them is that as soon as I pick it out for the day, I think “You know, if I’m worried about getting caught in a slide today, maybe I should just change my terrain choice instead of relying on a beacon or air bag.” When I do take an airbag out, I’m the first to admit that I’m much more willing to ski questionable slopes as I know I have an extra option or level of supposed security.

  2. George Hayduke October 13th, 2015 10:39 am

    I also was in attendance at the CSAW and enjoyed Dr. Haegeli’s presentation. Having never owned an airbag pack, I think this might be the season, as it seems enough of the “bugs” have been worked out with the various manufacturers. What is troubling (and this was brought up at the workshop), is people trending toward purchasing an airbag pack and not bothering with a beacon. Which ties in to the whole ” I took avy 1 and technology will save me anyway so I don’t need to learn to actually read snow” mindset that seems to be more and more prevalent. Kinda like having a GPS but not knowing how to use a compass and topo map….. Scary!

  3. Lou Dawson 2 October 13th, 2015 10:51 am

    Andrew, agree. Lou

  4. Chet Roe October 13th, 2015 11:23 am

    good thoughts here, but interesting how your bias comes out with your use of the statistics….11basis points is the same data as 50% decrease….yes you documented both, but you seem to have stressed the 11 basis points (consciously or unconsciously a “smaller” number)…you and the rest of us are still human! and the human decision issues are still a BIG deal in avi terrain consequences…thanks for the info, Chet

  5. Lou Dawson 2 October 13th, 2015 11:36 am

    Hi Chet, yeah, it probably was bias but I have to admit I was struggling to write up technical stats in a simplified form… Thanks for reading! Lou

  6. Mac October 13th, 2015 3:28 pm

    So using an airbag will effectively DOUBLE your chances of surving an avalanche? To my mind it seems like a no brainer.

  7. Lou Dawson 2 October 13th, 2015 3:37 pm

    Mac, essentially, yes. But it depends on the type of terrain you’re skiing. If you do big or timbered terrain, don’t expect great results. On the other hand, if you’re smart about terrain selection and are willing to pull the cord, you’ll get better than a 100% increase in your chances.

    My view at this time is that I wouldn’t wear the balloon pack all the time (I hate the weight), but I’ll wear it part of the time.

    Still, key thing is NOT getting caught. That’ll always be the case. Where we want to see more tech is in evaluating danger. Avatech?

  8. Jim Milstein October 13th, 2015 4:02 pm

    I remain dubious. There are so many qualifications to the efficacy of airbags, to which airbag induced boldness must be added. Prudence is lighter, less fiddly, less expensive, and more effective.

  9. Eric October 13th, 2015 5:14 pm

    If prudence is the only thing you need, do you wear a beacon or ski one at a time, or take any other safety measures? I agree that NOT getting caught is always the highest priority by a very large margin, but I’m also not arrogant enough to think that I will always be right about the stability of a particular slope. Thus, I wear a beacon, ski one at a time between safe spots, and will be using an airbag pack this winter.

    And pulling the trigger out (or extending your avalung mouth piece) is the equivalent of turning your beacon on to transmit at the start of your tour. That doesn’t mean you’re a crazy daredevil, for me it means you’re being humble and are preparing to be ready in case the worst case scenario happens.

  10. Rick October 13th, 2015 5:16 pm

    I tend to agree with Jim Milstein @ 4:02 pm ..

  11. Rick October 13th, 2015 5:31 pm

    and to preface my agreeing with Mr Milstein, yes I do wear a transceiver and carry both shovel and probe, very avi savvy, plus have a keen built in *spidey sense* ..


  12. Gabe Walker October 13th, 2015 5:59 pm

    Its like skydiving. there are a lot of different chutes and suits you can use but your still jumping out of an airplane. A true mountain man is a master of all their resources: knowledge X technology X ability.
    Parting note: Slopes get much safer when the angle gets steeper than 45 degrees so stay out of those big open 40 degree bowls in the sun and shred a spine. Its a safety zone from top to bottom. Happy shredding.

  13. Jim Milstein October 13th, 2015 7:51 pm

    It seems prudent to ski one at a time where instability is possible, but not likely. Around here, anyway, skiing in company without beacon, probe, and shovel is thought to be impolite, if not deeply offensive. I try to be polite. Once I was scolded for skiing solo without a beacon etc. It was, I was told, an affront to the entire backcountry community.

  14. Frame October 14th, 2015 3:15 am

    Small point but 1 basis point is one hundredth of 1 percent. The post talks of 11 %.

  15. Kyle October 14th, 2015 8:50 am

    @Jim Milstein I ski alone sometimes as well. I still bring my beacon ect though in case I need to help someone. That said I had some people at the top of a run ask me why I bring a beacon when I am skiing by myself. I mentioned I could help rescue someone else. They seemed like they questioned my knowledge of avalanches. But funny enough, I was skiing a slope that had almost zero chance of sliding based on terrain, yet they were going higher up to ski prime avalanche terrain in considerable avalanche conditions. Politely they asked if I would like to go with them. Nope, I am safer here by myself in this situation. They didnt want to ski something mellow. I found it interesting that they thought they were safer and smarter skiing way higher risk vs me being by myself in meadow terrain.

    Little off topic I guess, I have no experience with airbags ( :

  16. Dan October 14th, 2015 9:17 am

    Good discussion all. I’m likely to buy an airbag pack this season.

    Just to clarify the statistical terms you guys had discussed earlier:

    – Absolute risk reduction (ARR): 22%-11%= 11%.

    – Relative risk reduction (RRR): 11% / 22 % = 0.50. In other words, an airbag may provide a 50% relative risk reduction of death in a serious avalanche.

  17. Jim Milstein October 14th, 2015 9:20 am

    Exactly, Kyle. Skiing solo is not necessarily more dangerous than skiing in company. Groups often are bolder than solo skiers. When skiing alone one tends to ponder consequence unhurried. The urge to show off is absent, too.

    This is on-topic regarding airbags, not directly, but in the larger sense.

  18. Andy October 14th, 2015 10:35 am

    Are all of the airbag skeptics also beacon skeptics? If not, why not? Wouldn’t beacons have the same psychological impact of making you more likely to ski a potential avy slope? Put social pressure aside. Andrew: Do you stay home if you think you might need your beacon? What about shovels and probes? What’s the difference? I suppose one could say that beacons/probes/shovels are about OTHER people and the airbag is for yourself, but the heuristic piece is the same.

    I find it remarkable how every airbag story or review generates a stream of skeptical comments met with knowing nods (“They make you do stupid things” “Training is more important” “It’s just an expensive toy” “I don’t think they work”), but beacon, probe, shovel orthodoxy is rarely, if ever questioned. It certainly happens, but rarely.

    Of course, it’s true that if you think an avy is likely, you shouldn’t go. Of course, it’s important to be knowledgeable about travel in avalanche terrain, rescue, weather evaluation and all that. I’m not talking about idiots deciding they don’t need any training and can ride avy slopes just because they have packs. I’m talking about people with the requisite training and experience who take a beacon (and demand everyone else does), but refuse to take or own an airbag pack because they believe they lead you to make poorer decisions, are a waste of money, or whatever else. How do you differentiate the two?

    For the record, in case it’s not obvious, I see airbag packs in the following light: It’s an added layer of safety, along with terrain decisions, beacon/probe/shovel, partner selection and management, training and practice, etc. It’s part of a tapestry. They’re part of the greater good. Do seatbelts make people drive more recklessly? Do helmets make people ride more recklessly? Or is the net impact a positive?

  19. Matt October 14th, 2015 11:31 am

    Andy, one difference is that YouTube isn’t littered with videos of people ripping large avalanches, floating down them with a beacon and then high-fiving their friends at the bottom like it was some kind of cool adventure.

    Just as a personal anecdote, it seems like the marketing around airbag packs is drastically different than the marketing around beacon/shovel/probe. Whether because of that or some other reason, the risk emboldenment from airbag packs also seems to be far greater.

    A beacon will alter my decision making slightly. Strap on an airbag pack and I suddenly find myself feeling like superman. I’m clearly not unique here, but I wonder how many users have the self-awareness to recognize the change in their decision making.

  20. Larry Gregerson October 14th, 2015 11:47 am

    Andy…well said. I would also add to your questions we should all ask of ourselves, “Or, am I just trying to justify my reluctance to spend the considerable amount of money for an airbag pack, so I can spend that money on other gear (or, not spend the money at all)”? I sadly include myself in that consideration.

  21. Andy October 14th, 2015 12:29 pm

    Matt: I get the objections to the marketing entirely. It’s a fair point. But no one else in this thread, or many others on this subject, talked about that. Instead, we see, among others, the point you make in your last paragraph. I personally don’t feel like superman w/an airbag pack (or anything else, for that matter), but you’re obviously not alone. I understand the concern that if an experienced skier like yourself feels this influence, the impact on Joe Gaper will be even worse due to lack of experience and perhaps training.

    Do you feel the airbag pack is a net negative to YOUR safety?

    Used correctly both mechanically and heuristically (not letting it change your terrain choices), airbags packs make you safer, in what appears to be the opinion of a couple studies as well as MANY guides and avalanche professionals. It’s entirely healthy to strongly caution anyone considering one on the hazards of letting gear cloud your judgement. When that caution crosses the line into a denial of the tool’s obvious benefits, I believe it does a disservice to the safety of users.

  22. Darren Jakal October 14th, 2015 1:21 pm

    Get over the idea that an object is going to make back county skiing SAFER. Your airbag may PROTECT you from burial, but that not the same as being safe.

    When a steep slope becomes icy, putting on boot crampons makes travel safer. They will stop you from slipping and falling, but does anyone call crampons safety equipment. Same with climbing; the rope and gear you use are called PROTECTION. Putting on an airbag or beacon doesn’t change a thing when it come to safety from an avalanche. An airbag may offer some protection, but again this isn’t the same thing.

    I think it’s a disservice to everyone when PROTECTION equipment is called SAFETY equipment and that we should all use it because it will make us safer. Bullshit.

  23. Matt Kinney October 14th, 2015 1:40 pm

    Emboldment due to wearing an airbag should be a concern, but it’s hardly difficult to deal with if you are aware of it. I had the issue when I got an Avalung. “Will I take more risk?” That really didn’t happen as I’m still here after 500 ski days with an Avalung in complicated terrain problems without a single incident.

    I’m a few days from pulling the card for an airbag. My reasons are different. Stats show that us old guys are due for an avalanche sometime in your 50-60’s if you keep after the sport. We may have had one big event when were young, then got educated, became more conservative, etc. Life’s been good! Dependent on your cumulative days of a lifetime backcountry skiing, one is due to get clobbered again (statistically) no matter how “lou-wise” you may work to be. Not everyone will get clobbered, just some. It’s the nature of a beast we don’t yet fully understand, but it may be rooted in complacency, which to me is a bigger issue then emboldment,

    I solo tons so it’s a no brainer now that beta testing is pretty much over on airbags. I’m not to concerned about the added pound on my back as it seem pretty minuscule in the big picture of skiing avalanche terrain.

  24. John S October 14th, 2015 1:58 pm

    Heuristic traps are to be avoided regardless of the form – sunny days, safety gear, following someone elses tracks, previous safe travel, and on and on. It’s hard, yes, but we must be conscious of doing so.

    Airbags are but one device that we use on top of our brains and even a small mitigation of risk when we do make the wrong call is worth it to me. I wear my airbag whenever possible (long traverses where I need a large pack, etc, mean leaving it at home)

  25. Jim Milstein October 14th, 2015 2:24 pm

    As to whether airbag skeptics are also beacon skeptics, I am to the same extent and for some of the same reasons. Airbags, Avalungs, beacons, and probes are only useful in cases of full snow burial where the victim is still alive enough to be rescued. A shovel, though, is always useful.

    The suggestion that non-owners of airbags are cheapskates is invidious. However, it’s true, I’m a cheapskate.

    A skier could wear full-body armor with articulated joints. Yes, it would cost a lot, weigh a lot, be a pain to put on and take off, and would cramp her style, but an exoskeleton could save lives. Why not?

    As in so much else, it’s a question of line drawing. Your line is not necessarily drawn where my line is drawn.

  26. JCoates October 14th, 2015 2:28 pm


    Statistically I bet you “old” timers are safer with regards to experience and having less to prove. But you are right, because the more time in avalnche terrain you have, the more the chance for a sentinel event to happen. Just the law of probability. So the question is how much risk are we all willing to accept for the life we want to have in the mountains. It’s an individual decision and can’t be based on stats.

  27. Jim Milstein October 14th, 2015 2:43 pm

    Here’s an idea! Not an airbag, but an Hbag, and much bigger. Up, up, and away in my beautiful balloon!

    Unexpected rocky cliff? Pull the cord. To the bold go the spoils!

    The Hbag is best for solo skiing since deploying one separates the group, and then you’re solo skiing anyway. Or floating.

  28. Jim Milstein October 14th, 2015 2:47 pm

    JCoates, you’ve got the law of probability wrong. If you flip a fair coin ten times and get heads each time, the eleventh flip is still 50% likely to come up heads. Probability has no memory. How could it?

  29. Shawn October 14th, 2015 2:54 pm

    JCoates wrote, “But you are right, because the more time in avalnche terrain you have, the more the chance for a sentinel event to happen. Just the law of probability.”

    Each roll of the dice is independent of prior rolls. No one is ever “due” for a specific result just because they previously have not seen that result. What is true is that the young skier who intends to roll the dice many hundreds of times has a higher probability of eventually seeing a bad outcome. That the older skier hasn’t in the past doesn’t make it more likely in the future. It’s just the opposite, because he or she has fewer rolls left to make.

    If there is evidence that more 50+ year old skiers are caught by avalanches than are younger skiers, it would have to be because of behavior changing with age, and this would really surprise me. Is there any aspect of life in which young people behave more prudently than older people?

  30. Jim Milstein October 14th, 2015 3:21 pm

    To answer Shawn’s question:

    The reason older skiers get caught in avalanches more than younger skiers is due to gravity having a weaker grip on older skiers. Consequently, they have a harder time outrunning avalanches despite their prudence and wisdom. This is my personal experience, too.

  31. Gabe Walker October 14th, 2015 5:11 pm

    Ha Ha< thats a good one Jim Milstein! Its too bad the "older skiers" you know can't out shred you. In my home turf it takes a long time for the youngsters to lift our torches! Physics. I'm 6' 4" at 210. Id be stoked if you can go faster. pow will only let you do about 62 miles an hour. if your big and rad you can get it up to almost seventy if you tuck. If your lightweight, i can almost guarantee you cant catch my old S no matter how young you are. However, with that said, knowing were to fracture the slab and how to run away from it can change the game. Just be smart with risk vs reward. Save your dice rolls for when you really need em" Shred on Jim!
    As for statistics, I was under the impression that the most likely avalanche victims are white males 28 years old. I don't think 50 year olds are very high on the chart.
    (Especially if your a non-white female).

  32. Shawn October 14th, 2015 5:25 pm

    Interesting, Jim. My experience with gravity has been the opposite. Every time I look in the mirror, it seems to have a stronger grasp on me.

  33. Matt Kinney October 14th, 2015 5:48 pm

    I read a paper about this age thing at ISSW2012 which showed a bar graph with a spike at 30yoa and another spike at about 55yoa. Not a white paper person so can’t recall the presenter and such, just that it stuck in my mind. Perhaps it is more a numbers game as there are more people over 55 backcountry skiing who are just getting into it and of course those that have been involved in the sport since they were in their 30’s. I don’t recall many bc skiers in their 60’s when I was 24, They are not out there in larger numbers and… they are in the way!

  34. Andrew October 14th, 2015 7:10 pm

    Gabe – I’m not so sure about spines being all that safe, especially as a lot of the time they are subjected to side wind loading which essentially creates a vertical cornice. If you’ve seen the movie “Steep” that avalanche occurred while climbing up an arete/spine on a low danger day and the entire spine pulled out.

    Beacons/airbags/safety belts
    Beacons can not only save you, but help you save a friend as well. Plus they are very lightweight and compact, so to me that is pretty much a no brainer.

  35. kevin October 14th, 2015 10:05 pm

    “One nearly foolproof precaution exists – the Skadi avalanche rescue beacon. But considerations of price put it out of the range of the average touring skier.
    … It’s beiin calculated that the a Skadi equipped searcher looking or a Skadi equipped victim is the equivalent o nearly 500 men with probing poles
    … But since each unit costs over a hundred dollars and you need at least two, the Skadi is not likely to become popular with touring skiers”

    Wilderness Skiing. Tejada-Flores/Steck. 1972

    Does history repeat itself? I wonder what technology will be standard, and what we’ll be debating over 43years from now??

  36. Eric Beinhocker October 15th, 2015 8:29 am

    Very informative piece. The biggest barrier to widespread airbag adoption amongst ski tourers is probably weight (as well as cost). When you’re shaving every gram for a multi-day adventure an airbag adds back a lot of weight. But my impression is the bag/pack combos have been getting lighter with each generation (e.g. the new Mammut Light) and there are more options for touring oriented packs. It would be really helpful if someone in the WildSnow community did a round-up of the 2016 season airbags with the eye of a ski tourer, looking carefully at weight comparisons and touring friendly features (maybe categorising by use, e.g. day tours, hut-to-hut, and expedition). To date the packs have been more focused on the needs of lift served freeriders – such a comparison review might help manufacturers also focus a bit more on tourers.

  37. Lou Dawson 2 October 15th, 2015 9:04 am

    Also, I hope airbag packs don’t end up like ski helmets, built to match or barley exceed outdated standards, with innovation stifled and the marketing people dictating nearly everything. And with nearly 100% adoption not resulting in the significant reduction of fatalities we all want to see. Or consider beacons, old timers remember all the peer pressure to use them when they were new technology, now we have 100% adoption, but are people dying in avalanches less frequently, per capita?


  38. Andy October 15th, 2015 10:23 am

    A good, though basic, measure of that would be fatalities per X users, to account for the fluctuating number of people entering the backcountry, which will vary year over year based on the weather, popularity of certain sports, etc. Another method would the ratio of human-involved avalanche incidents to fatalities (I.e. when people are caught in avalanches, are they more or less likely to survive vs. past years?).

    The only data I’ve seen is total annual fatalities (or just human-involved incidents) by continent, country and state, with that often cut by month (http://www.avalanche.org/accidents_prev.php?date=1998-1999). I’m sure there’s more out there.

  39. JC October 16th, 2015 7:45 am

    Could it be that the bottom line behind all the argument and debate is thy being involved in a life threatening avalanche remains exceedingly rare? Are we all purchasing and carrying a lot of gear that odds are we will never have to use? An interesting survey would be how many if us have had to employ our air bags, or find a buried victim using a beacon ? That being said, clearly the safest way to ski tour is to have and know how to use every available piece of safety gear.

  40. Jim Milstein October 16th, 2015 11:51 am

    Good point, JC. You are pointing to a personal cost/benefit ratio, where cost is not just in money, but in weight, fiddling, enjoyment, etc. too.

    One’s personal history could be factored in as well. If you see frequent avalanche events that involved people, or could have, having the gear and the knowledge is more important than if you have never been close to such events — and don’t intend to change that. Some people are more likely to need the gear and some less.

  41. Edge October 16th, 2015 12:57 pm

    Thanks for the report, Lou. Pascal left a lot of info out of his CSAW presentation that was in his paper–including the section on “risk compensation.” In his paper, Pascal states that while there will always be individuals who take more risks because they’re using an airbag, this is a small minority–and the net effect is an increase in saved lives.

    In my opinion a valid comparison is the auto industry, where safety advances since he 1960’s, including seat belts and car airbags, have driven the fatality-per-miles stats down by nearly 50 percent. While there are some that choose to drive faster, the net effect is extremely positive.

    Keep in mind that the stats Pascal presented included those who may have decided to take more risks due to their airbag–so the 50% increase in survival already takes “risk compensation” into account.

    This is what did it for me at CSAW: Pascal has always seemed skeptical to me about airbags, but he laid this to rest when he made this conclusion:

    “If you got these results from some kind of cancer treatment, it would be on the market tomorrow.” Someone then asked him if he uses an airbag. He said, “Yes, I’m using an airbag–and I just wrote a safety plan for my students and will require them to use an airbag as well.”

  42. Lou Dawson 2 October 16th, 2015 2:21 pm

    Good comments Edge, thanks, I didn’t realize Pascal had factored in risk compensation.

    Only thing different about highway safety is even if you feel like driving 110mph because you have an airbag, the highway patrol does exist (grin).

    The cancer analogy is better.


  43. Edge October 16th, 2015 3:08 pm

    My comment above blends info from Haegeli’s paper and another one by your former beacon reviewer (and Harvard economist) Jonathan Shefftz. I just re-read both, so here’s more resolution:

    Haegeli cites a 2000 study on traffic fatalities by Hedlund, but doesn’t provide much detail. The stat I mentioned above was actually from your former beacon reviewer (and Harvard economist) Jonathan Shefftz, who wrote an article in The Avalanche Review two years ago citing a 2009 study on US traffic fatalities. Their conclusions:

    Haegeli (on the Hedlund paper): “While risk compensation does occur–even though not consistently–it generally does not eliminate the safety gains from the programs, but only reduces the size of the expected effect.”

    Shefftz: “Therefore, any risk-offsetting behavior (whether in the form of driving more dangerously or driving more miles) has been only partially offsetting, not fully. So yes, Virginia, even if Santa Claus might not really exist, technology can make us safer despite our unsafe impulses.”

    I’m really hoping we can all put this “risk compensation” issue to rest now, even if the only hard data comes from traffic fatalities. Bottom line: airbags make some people take more risks, but this is offset by the masses who don’t take more risks.

  44. snowbot October 17th, 2015 7:42 pm

    Thanks, Edge. So much curmudgeonly grousing about other people’s risk homeostasis in the response to this post.

    Lou, Pascal didn’t chose accidents with airbags and accidents without – he specifically used a dataset of fatal accidents involving multiple people, some who had airbags and some who didn’t. Those who wore airbags became the randomized treatment group and those who didn’t were the randomized control group. The rationale was that if an accident was large enough/ serious enough to kill one person, it was large enough to kill anyone in the accident. Sure, there are some random variables in there, but it’s the best we have given that no one has valid stats on total bc use and total airbag use and total avalanche involvements, and thus can’t calculate a mortality rates from the entire population.

    My sense is that Pascal’s conclusions are the minimum additional advantage, because of his very specific dataset.

  45. Jim Milstein October 18th, 2015 8:13 am

    As a curmudgeon, I will continue to grouse while the early adopters adopt and while the products improve in both usability and cost. Then, if I’m still skiing (and not dead — beware zombie skiers in the backcountry!), I will buy the Apple 16TeraByte iBag.

  46. Jim October 21st, 2015 12:30 pm

    When backcountry touring and skiing, 90% of the time skinning or booting up you should be out of avy terrain. An avy while climbing will impact you, so the bag won’t help much. A bag is only good when caught at the top of an avy. So the only time it will help is the 10% of the time your are actually skiing, and even then, deployment is difficult. So weighing the benefits/vs weight, I don’t use one. But I’m very cautious, and turn back often. Its a different story for heli skiing where you are exposed much more, and don’t have beta from climbing up.

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