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Do avalanche airbags lead to riskier choices among backcountry users?

November 9, 2021

In this "Demystifying Avalanche Concepts" series post,  avalanche researcher Pascal Haegeli dives into whether people take more risks when wearing an avalanche airbag --- or not?

The topic of risk homeostasis—behavior adjustment based on perceived risk—also known as risk compensation, has been present in the ski world for many years. Backcountry decision-making entered the conversation following the appearance of helmets and the advent of avalanche airbags. Many people believe that these safety devices make for riskier behaviors in the avalanche terrain because they protect from accidents and asphyxiation. But for years, there was no definitive study on this topic. That is why Pascal Haegeli, NSERC Industrial Research Chair in Avalanche Risk Management in the School for Resource and Environmental Management at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver B.C., decided to dive into the topic and find the answers.

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Haegeli is a backcountry skier interested in the topic of homeostasis in the backcountry on both personal and academic levels. He is also a native of Switzerland, a country where avalanche airbags have been popular for many years, so his familiarity with the technology and his background in avalanche safety research piqued his curiosity. What resulted was an article in the December 2019 volume of The Journal of Outdoor Recreation and Tourism that documents his investigation into the topic of whether avalanche airbags lead to riskier choices among backcountry and out-of-bounds skiers. 

The article is an in-depth look at how a skier’s risk-taking behavior is affected by the presence of an avalanche airbag. Haegeli noted a few key concepts that he found are important to remember when venturing into the backcountry with an avalanche airbag. 

On his choice to wear an airbag

“I wear an airbag, and according to my research, I need to [chuckles]. Also, as the head of my research group, I ask students to wear one when they go out into the field to do research or visit a collaborating backcountry operation. So, there are both personal and professional benefits to airbags for me.”

On what an airbag cannot protect you against

“Under ideal conditions, they are a very effective tool for reducing the risk of getting buried and dying from asphyxia. But they are not a silver bullet. You can still get buried even with a fully inflated airbag; for example, getting flushed into a terrain trap, or triggering an avalanche up high and hitting the skier from above. Either way, they do not help against trauma.

Aside from the conditions, that additional layer of safety equipment influences decisions in the backcountry. This is where risk homeostasis comes into play. So, if we want to know the bigger picture, we need to take this into account.”

On how risk homeostasis happens and who is affected

“Risk homeostasis is a psychological theory that states that people are not trying to minimize their risk, but rather optimize it by maintaining an acceptable level in the context of the risk and benefits of an activity. This means that adding a safety device might entice people to expose themselves to a hazard even more.

Now, avalanche airbags have numerous features that increase the chance of risk homeostasis. The trigger handle, for example, is a visible reminder to the wearer that there is an extra safety layer when taking risks in the backcountry.

The reason for going into the backcountry also plays an essential role in risk homeostasis. For some, the main reason for going into the backcountry is simply to have an enjoyable time in nature, while for others, it is about challenging themselves and riding a big line. It is imaginable that the people who are interested in challenging themselves are more susceptible to risk homeostasis. That is exactly what our study showed."

On how to educate people about risk homeostasis

“The challenge is that we might not even be aware that we are increasing our risk exposure when we strap on an airbag. This is why we need to raise awareness about the possibility of risk homeostasis. The goal is not to tell people what to do, but to make sure that everybody is aware of what they are getting themselves into.

A good start would be to take five minutes to highlight the topic of risk homeostasis in an introductory avalanche awareness course when we introduce all these safety devices and how they work. In reality, it is not about minimizing risk, but rather, finding the right balance. And I think that having open conversations about that will help the general understanding.

A few years ago, there was a mentality that was like, ‘No, we're really against airbags because they might lead to risk homeostasis.’ I was like, ‘Well, then you shouldn't teach an avalanche safety course because that also leads to risk homeostasis because if people didn't have that knowledge, they wouldn't go out there.’ But if we are all about enabling people to follow their passions in the backcountry, avalanche airbags are just another tool in our avalanche risk management toolbox.”

On major takeaways from his study

“I think for me, the most important takeaway is that avalanche airbags are an effective tool under the right circumstances and if you can deploy them properly. So, regularly practicing the deployment is key. But they do not work under all circumstances, which means that you cannot rely on them. People can still get buried and some of those people still die. The best approach for not dying in an avalanche is not getting into one in the first place. So, an airbag is just an additional line of defense once you have made a mistake.

The second takeaway is that risk homeostasis is a possibility, especially if you are interested in skiing or snowmobiling challenging terrain. If that's your motivation for going into the backcountry, you should be aware that that can easily happen to you; you might suddenly feel more comfortable shredding something that you wouldn't have otherwise. But risk homeostasis can also occur within a group when not everybody is wearing an airbag, so suddenly, you get sent down slopes first to test the terrain because you have this additional device. So, possible dynamics are happening at a variety of levels.

I think that making people aware of this dynamic is a crucial step towards avoiding unintended risk-taking, especially right at the beginning after you've just spent a thousand Canadian dollars on this new, shiny. At that point, you are more likely to be like, ‘Okay, I need to get something out of this now to make it worthwhile,’ and people tend to take more risks when that is the case. Over time, these urges might mellow out, but sometimes that may be too late. Therefore, raising awareness about the effects of airbags is vital. This way they can make better-informed decisions about their backcountry travels.”