Is skiing off piste as safe as driving a car?


The hypothesis

Skier off piste HAT Val d'IsereAt HAT we often make the statement that going off piste is no more dangerous than driving your car on the road. That is provided you have the right training and experience. We know off piste is more fun than driving.  Is it safer? This article examines this assertion with some statistics.

Driving a car is more dangerous than we think it is. There are 1,732 fatalities per year in the UK, 3,260 road traffic deaths in France and a whopping 34,086 fatalities per year in the USA. These risks are greater than terrorism, travelling in aeroplanes and many high-risk sports. Yet driving a car is perceived to be normal and is something we do without any sense of danger.

Why is that the case? The obvious simple reason is that we have been trained to drive a car and there are very clear rules of conduct that we all understand. If we were not trained and did not know which side of the road to drive on and what is a safe speed then it would be pretty hazardous. These rules are policed by a recognised authority. This gives us confidence. When you add onto that the “familiarity heuristic” which means the more often we drive, the more relaxed and comfortable we feel about it, it is easy to see how driving feels OK.

When we go off piste, the same applies, if you have training you know and understand the rules and how to conduct your group for a safe and fun outing.

Driving accidents are not reported in the media with the same drama as avalanche deaths. This is because they happen every day of the year so they are not so newsworthy. Avalanche deaths capture the news media imagination and news flies around social media sites with incredible speed.

The facts

How safe you are in a car heavily depends on which country you are in.

Number of fatalities per year per 100,000 vehicles in each country

  • Finland 4
  • UK 5
  • Netherlands 6
  • France 8
  • USA 12
  • China 104
  • Saudi Arabia 119
  • South Africa 134
  • Senegal 956
  • Ethiopia 4,984

Sources: Wikipedia, WHO report, Department of Transport

N.B. The UK is the second safest in the world after Finland. The UK government has reduced road fatalities by 46% in the last 10 years through a range of policies around speeding enforcement, driver training, road signage, and road design. This successful policy has some lessons for off piste safety.

Why we like the off piste and why we feel apprehensive

Now going off piste does not have the same regulation, supervision and controls as the roads.  We do not go there so often so we feel more exposed and vulnerable. This makes going off piste feel like a journey into the unknown. This is why we like it.

The sense of danger off-piste is frequently enhanced by notices about risks of avalanche death, the feeling of getting lost or fear of suffering a nasty fall and injury and being a long way from help and rescue.

The facts about off piste accidents

probing for avalanche victim

There are on average 100 avalanche-related deaths in Europe each year and 28 in the US. (Source :Geographica Helvetica) But there are far fewer people going off piste and they spend fewer days than people driving a car. So we have made some assumptions on how many driver days and trips there are vs how many off piste skier days and trips there are based on some UK data from the Department of Transport.

Assumptions on number of driving trips vs off-piste ski trips
  • The UK population covers 317 billion miles in their cars each year doing 45 billion trips involving 55 million people. This means we are at 0.000004% risk of a fatal incident per trip and 0.00005% risk of a serious injury. Source: Department of Transport
  • In contrast, there are just 150 million skier visit days each year in Europe and 75 million in the US (Source: Laurent Vanat).

If we assume that as few as 10% of those skier days involve people venturing off piste intentionally or otherwise then we are at 0.0006% of risk of a fatal accident in Europe and 0.0003% in the USA.

Now there are a lot of assumptions here and you can pick holes in the numbers. Some road trips/some drivers are more dangerous than others. Some off-piste days/off-piste groups are much more dangerous than others.   There are some off-piste days where the risks are more like 1-5%, there are others where the risks are very small.

But what are we saying at HAT.

Our assessment is that compared to driving a car in all countries outside Europe and the US, then going off piste is much safer than driving your car. Compared to driving in the USA, the risks of both activities are similar.  Compared to driving a car in the UK, going off piste is riskier than driving your car. But in all cases the risk of death is very low on average. (Less than 0.001%).  In a car you are much more likely to suffer a serious injury, whereas avalanches are either fatal or a less serious injury.

N.B.  The data and figures for ski touring and randonee are different.  Going out into untracked virgin terrain seems to raise the risk.  There are a disproportionate number of avalanches triggered by ski tourers who are on virgin snow pack and far fewer people who are adventurous enough to do it

So is it safe to get in your car?

The answer is the same as the answer to the question – is it safe to go off piste?

The answer is it depends… It depends on

  • where you go (which country you are driving in, which road you are on),
  • which routes you take (conditions, road type, speed)
  • how well prepared you are (condition of vehicle, training, concentration and alertness).

For going off piste, is it safe out there? The answer is it depends … it depends on

  • where you go and when – slope angles, danger rating, recent activity
  • how you go down or up – route selection, one at a time, terrain traps
  • how well prepared you are – the human factor, training, equipment, group attitude

Get trained, get the experience or go with someone who has the experience.  Then you are not really taking much more risk than going out in your car.

Click here to get trained

If you have any doubt about why we do it then just watch this