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The effectiveness of the avalanche airbag
The avalanche airbag is the only emergency device that serves the purpose of preventing burial as far as possible. Although it is a recommended piece of equipment, the airbag does not form part of the standard emergency kit. In a recent international study in which the SLF participated, researchers examined a dataset of 245 avalanche accidents in Europe and North America. The scientists compared the extent of burial and the fatality rate of snow sport participants involved in the same accident with and without an airbag. Applying this restriction to the dataset reduced the number of investigated accidents to just 61, involving a total of 189 victims. All of the avalanches were therefore relatively large and claimed several victims.
The study confirmed that the avalanche airbag is a very effective emergency device. Among the investigated avalanche victims, an inflated airbag reduced mortality by one-half, from 22% to 11%. In other words, for every 100 victims without an airbag who were seriously involved in an avalanche accident, 22 were killed. The 78 survivors did not suffer fatal injury, were not buried, or were rescued timely. For every 100 victims who were protected by an inflated airbag, 11 died because they were buried nonetheless or suffered fatal injury. In summary, therefore, 11 additional avalanche victims survived thanks to an airbag.
Given that it has to be activated manually in the event of an avalanche, however, the airbag's effectiveness is materially impaired. Airbags that had not inflated were fairly common in the investigated dataset: the non-inflation rate was 20%; in 60% of these cases, the user had not activated the airbag. If an airbag is to be effective, it is essential that users are familiar with the release procedure and maintain the device correctly.
The authors have published the results of the study in the medical trade journal "Resuscitation" and in a popular scientific article in the German magazine "bergundsteigen".