Pascal Haegeli, Reto Rupf and Barbary Karlen
Journal of Outdoor Recreation and Tourism, in press. doi: 10.1016/j.jort.2019.100270
Publication year: 2019

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While the effectiveness of airbags for reducing mortality in avalanche involvements has been examined in various studies, the question of whether the added safety benefit might lead to increased risk-taking – a phenomenon referred to as risk compensation or risk homeostasis – has only been tackled by a few researchers. Building on the existing research on airbags, risk compensation, and stated terrain preferences in winter backcountry recreation, we conducted an extensive online survey including a discrete choice experiment to approach the topic of avalanche airbags and risk compensation from multiple perspectives. Our study sample consists of 163 airbag owners and 243 non-owners mainly from Switzerland, Germany, and Austria. The analyses of the survey responses provide both indirect and direct evidence that risk compensation in response to avalanche airbags is likely within at least certain segments of the recreational backcountry and out-of-bounds skiing population. Initial indirect evidence on risk compensation is provided by examining participants’ responses to airbag attitude and use questions using the framework of Hedlund (2000). The stated terrain preferences in our discrete choice experiment with and without airbags indicate that non-owners of airbags might make more aggressive terrain choices when they are given an airbag, whereas the preference patterns of owners did not change when the airbag was taken away from them. Finally, our analysis of avalanche involvement rates with and without airbags offers the most direct evidence that more thrill-seeking backcountry users are taking higher risks when equipped with airbags. The paper concludes with a discussion that highlights that the potential for risk compensation is not a strong argument against the use of avalanche airbags.

Management implications

  • If properly used, avalanche airbags are an effective avalanche safety device for reducing the risk of critical burials and death.
  • Considerable indirect and direct evidence exists that highlights that avalanche airbags likely lead to risk compensation within at least some segments of the recreational backcountry and out-of- bounds skiing population.
  • Risk-taking in the backcountry is a personal choice, but recreationalists should have the necessary information about the direct and potential indirect effects of safety devices to make informed decisions.
  • The topic of risk compensation should be included in avalanche awareness courses and discussed in avalanche airbag support documentation and user manuals to increase the awareness of the potential among users.
  • Additional avalanche accident research should be conducted to better understand the circumstances when the effectiveness of airbags is limited.

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