Starting in 2010, the well-known airbag producer ABS conducted a study of airbag effectiveness. With a sample size of 262 potentially life-threatening avalanches, 97% of testers were visible on the snow surface after the slides occurred. The other 3% were killed despite wearing their packs. In the same study (same avalanches), 25% of the 67 people NOT wearing ABS packs died. Basic takeaway from the study: the ABS pack gives you a 22% GREATER survival rate (25% minus 3%).
From in-depth studies like these, we can conclude without doubt that airbags are hugely effective in avalanche safety. But just because you have your new airbag on your back, doesn’t mean you can go out and ski anything you want. Your airbag may bring you to the surface of a slide, but it won’t protect you from terrain traps and natural hazards (rocks, trees, etc.) that take lives via trauma.
There exists a trait within humans called “risk homeostatis”, which tells our brains that with increased safety measures, we should be more liberal in our risk taking. When skiing in the backcountry, we need to continue to be conscious in our decision making, and choose the lines we ski ourselves, rather than have the gear we’re carrying dictate our line selection. The goal of airbag backpacks is to save lives, so if we’re skiing life-threatening zones without hesitation, our increased perception of safety is, in effect, canceling the effectiveness of the airbag pack.
Now this isn’t meant to be a lecture from your annoying professor about the dangers of riding with an airbag, merely a reminder that the terrain doesn’t change just because of the gear we’re carrying. Line selection, safe-spot locating, and basic awareness of our surroundings are all tools we need to keep using when in the backcountry. So let’s continue to push ourselves and progress the sport with the safest gear available to us, just don’t let the gear factor get to your head in deciding what to ride on your next mission. After all you don’t want to end up another statistic for ABS…