Bruce Tremper of the Utah Avalanche Center has published an interesting article looking at the real-world effectiveness of avalanche airbags.  There’s no question that they DO help, but to what extent?

There’s been lots of stats bandied about both within marketing material and more objective reviews of the use of airbags but what does an airbag actually mean in terms of improving your chance of survival if you’re caught out.

In 2007 Herman Brugger carried out a study on The Impact of Avalanche Rescue Devices on Survival. His study looked at 1504 people who were involved in 752 avalanches between1990 and 2004 across Switzerland and Austria.  He showed that while wearing an airbag, 3% of those killed in an avalanche compared to 18% of those without an airbag, so 81% of those caught in an avalanche will survive if airbags aren’t used, 97% will survive if airbags ARE used. and this is where the 97% survival rate figure comes from which you will so often see touted as the primary reason to own an airbag.

Tremper makes the point, however, that of those who are caught most will survive anyway so the figures do not accurately represent the absolute effectiveness of the airbags. No figures are offered for the assertion that most will survive however.

Later research by Pascal Haegeli presented a slightly different view on things and his preliminary results suggest… “If you look at it with a glass-half-full approach, a deployed airbag saved about half of those who would have otherwise died.  If you look it with a glass-half-empty approach, you would say that half of the people who deployed airbags died anyway.

As Tremper goes on to point out, an airbag is useless if you hit a tree, end up in a hollow with an avalanche piling in on top of you, or are flushed over a cliff.  Ultimately terrain choice is a hige deciding factor in the survivability of an avalanche.

My own view?  I will willingly carry any device which will improve my chances of survival as long as it’s use does not hinder my normal actions and it’s wearing or carrying is transparent to your normal skiing day.  So airbag? For me, yes.

I suggest you read the full blog article by Tremper : but I welcome comments and discussion.