Police using creative methods to catch cell phone use while driving

Driving while operating your cell is not only dangerous, it can lead to some pretty harsh fines. Photo by Lord-Jim

This February, police in B.C. are working to step up their efforts to combat distracted driving.

Last year on Feb. 1, a new law prohibiting the use of cell phones and other devices while driving was passed. On this, the one-year anniversary of the new legislation, police are feeling that the public has failed to receive their message.

This comes after an estimated 32,000 tickets were issued under the new legislation.

Police concerns have also been bolstered by statistics. The BCAA Traffic Safety Foundation estimated that distracted driving was a contributing factor in as many as 48 per cent of the fatalities on our roads in the Lower Mainland last year.

Penalties for distracted driving in the province do not currently exceed a ticket of $169 combined with three Driver Penalty Points or DPP. With the public paying so little attention to the new law, could harsher penalties be coming?

In the following podcast, I speak with officers Sgt. Peter Thiessen and Cpl. Jamie Chung of the RCMP about the legislation and distracted driving month.

The officers detail their concerns about distracted driving, as well as providing some insight into the creative methods police will be using to catch violators.

For anybody who drives on B.C. roads, it’s worth a listen.


Click here for the podcast

Newly discovered antibody could lead to ALS vaccine

Photo by Daniel Paquet

Researchers from University of British Columbia’s brain research centre believe they have created an antibody that successfully targets cellular mutations caused by Lou Gehrig’s disease.

The illness, also known as ALS, has been difficult to treat since its discovery in 1869 due to a lack of understanding surrounding its causes.

Biomedical researcher Leslie Grad says the antibodies his team has developed target only the disease-causing proteins, which become mis-folded and spread their mutations throughout the body.

“In our lab we look at ways to stop the protein mis-folding,” Grad said.

“One way to do this is to create molecules called antibodies that specifically recognize diseased forms of the protein.”

The disease affects approximately one in 1000 people, with 80 per cent dying from the disease within two to five years. A disease of the nervous system, ALS alters motor neurons causing paralysis of the limbs, speech, and ultimately respiratory systems.

The guilty protein is known as SOD1 and is found in every cell of the human body. This protein can be affected by over 150 unique mutations, all of which can lead to the disease.

These mutations cause the protein to mis-fold. The researchers believe this disorder can then be transmitted to healthy proteins across cells and neurons.

The actual chemical structure of the protein itself remains unaffected. The disease is instead caused by the way the proteins are folded. The antibodies created by Grad’s team target only these specific mis-folded proteins, while ignoring healthy ones.

“The disease form can be secreted from the cell. Experiments have shown how diseased proteins impose their will on healthy ones,” Grad said.

According to him, SOD1 mutations are responsible for roughly two per cent of ALS cases. The team is also working to explore a general SOD1 connection in all instances of the disease, a topic he describes as “highly controversial” at this time.

Should Grad’s suspicions that SOD1 be linked to other forms of the disease prove valid, a treatment for most forms of the disease could be a possibility.

“We are in the process of humanizing the antibodies,” Grad said.

The researchers hope to make an antibody that the human body will not reject as a foreign agent, leading to possible preventative treatments for the disease.

“A human version of the antibody could essentially be taken as a vaccine,” added Grad.

The first thing researchers need to do, before they can offer their visions of a possible cure or vaccine, is demonstrate how the disease works.

The team is currently working on two studies. Their first aim is to show how the mutated proteins spread throughout a cell by influencing other healthy proteins to mis-fold.

Grad said the second study aims to show how these mutations can be transmitted outside the cell to healthy parts of the body, ultimately affecting our motor neurons and causing the disease.

It is the hope of the researchers that their antibody will block the transmission of these mutations, leading to a vaccine that could be administered in order to prevent ALS from developing.

For the immediate future, however, ALS will remain a vicious and uncontrollable killer.

“Unfortunately, ALS is a death-sentence,” said Grad. “A quick death-sentence.”

The life of a Vancouver mall Santa is both lucrative and exhausting

Norm Pettersson, a former United Church minister, sits upon his throne at the Oakridge shopping centre.


The life of Santa Claus can be quite stressful at times, just ask Norm Pettersson.

A former United Church minister, Pettersson has been donning the bells and fur of Saint Nick for eight seasons now.

“It’s hard for Santa,” said Pettersson, who spoke of trials including visits from the elderly, rambunctious teenagers, crying babies and even sick children.

“The difficult parts are when you get children who are in the middle of chemotherapy and they’re coming as part of the family to do special things at Christmas.”

Pettersson said that while it can be emotionally challenging to make worried families smile, the best thing to do is just “Treat them normally. That’s what they want, to just be treated normally.”

The key to being a good Santa is enthusiasm and a knack for dealing with people from all walks of life, Pettersson said.

“The older kids and adults sometimes are just doing silly things. But it’s alright, you just play the game…Santa has the job of helping them have fun.”

His authentic look and enthusiasm of spirit caught the attention of Jack Scott, owner of Senior Quality Personnel. The company provides Santa services to events and shopping centres across metro Vancouver.

“The criteria is very strict,” said the 74-year-old Scott, a retired executive of a multi billion-dollar developing firm. “They have to like what they’re doing. Santa is a lot of work, and if you don’t like what you’re doing you just get exhausted.”

Scott said that his 35 Santas undergo thorough background checks and have full, natural white beards.

“The people who work for us are genuinely nice people…They’re just the type of people you like to be around.”

Spreading six weeks of holiday cheer across the city can be a stressful business, but the rewards are lucrative. According to Scott, the company expects to make up to $200,000 this year.

“A good Santa will make five to six thousand dollars over Christmas,” Scott said.

John Geissinger is the weekend Santa at the Metropolis shopping centre. He said the extra cash comes in useful during the Christmas season.

“I just got a new car, so it’s paying for that.”

John Geissinger waves from Santa’s workshop in the Metropolis shopping centre


“A good Santa is pretty much somebody who can take a crying child and stop them from crying,” Geissinger said, admitting his favourite part has been the great people he has met along the way.

“Things like that to me are absolutely priceless, the memories I’ll keep forever.”

A boy wearing headphones is struck by a train, Duncan RCMP feel no need to inform

A young student puts on her headphones while waiting to cross the street.

Duncan area RCMP said they have no intent to educate the public after a boy wearing headphones was struck by a train, but an expert in sound awareness thinks they should.

“Something like that, [it’s] something that everybody knows,” constable Markus Luder said.

“It’s just like looking both ways when you’re crossing the crosswalk.”

The 14-year-old was hit by a Via train during daylight hours on Nov. 5, and was unable to hear the approaching train despite repeated blasts of its horn.

“To me, that is amazing,” Luder said. “That dayliner comes through here everyday, I know how loud that horn is.”

Duncan area RCMP said the incident should serve as a lesson to people who might fail to recognize the dangers of headphones and loud music.

“Anywhere around any kind of machinery, any time where your hearing is important, wear one ear bud, don’t wear two, so you know what’s going on,” Luder said.

Chantal Laroche is an expert in noise and the perception of warning sounds at the University of Ottawa. She said she felt police need to help raise awareness of these dangers.

“As audiologists we know that we have a lot of education to do, and it’s unfortunate that police forces don’t want to educate the kids,” Laroche said.

Laroche said she felt people have to be careful, but said she would take it a step further than the police warning to wear just one ear bud.

“It’s risky to wear these devices when you are outside and moving,” she said.

“For me, as an audiologist, I never recommend people to [use] their ipod or music players when they are walking or running.”

Laroche was less than surprised about the boy’s inability to hear the approaching train.

“It’s not the first time I [heard] that somebody [was] hit by a train wearing headphones,” Laroche said. “They have to be told, because people do not know about these risks.”

Laroche said that her worries extend beyond trains, and warned against using music devices in any situation where your attention may be needed.

“The hearing system is very specialized,” she said, speaking about the difference between the ability to detect sound and that of locating it.While most people realize they cannot locate a sound they don’t hear, Laroche said there are still dangers.

“It’s a mix of detection and localization,” she said. “If you just barely hear it … it will take you more time [to locate].”

College student Sheena Lacey, a 26-year-old studying market management, said she routinely uses ear bud headphones like those worn by the Duncan boy.

“I sometimes wonder why I have my headphones in and my music blaring all the time,” Lacey said. “It’s not safe.”

Lacey’s friend, 19-year-old student Patrick Vernier, agreed.

“They should definitely go around to the schools and talk to the kids,” Vernier said.

RCMP said they were unable to offer any updates on the boy’s condition at this time.

“I believe they have a very injured leg,” Luder said.

Vancouver laneway houses not proving an affordable option

Jason Oliver is the millwork shop leader for Smallworks, one of the biggest manufacturers of laneway houses in Vancouver.

City council’s decision to support laneway houses in Vancouver gives students more options when searching for accommodation, but prices still remain high in college neighbourhoods.

An October administrative report showed that as part of their affordable housing strategy, Vancouver City Council recognized laneway houses in 2009 as an “opportunity for adding to rental housing supply across the city.”

While affordability has been offered as one of the primary benefits of laneway houses, rental advertisements tell a different story. In the Langara College area, the cost per bedroom of these units currently averages over $1,060.

“My next door neighbours have a laneway house that’s on 21st,” said Tracey Greer, a 23-year-old history student at Langara. “They’re charging $1,200.”

Greer said she thinks many landlords feel they can get away with charging high rents in Vancouver due to the heavy demand for housing in the city.

“People will always pay, so [landlords] are going to charge a lot.”

Arts student Kylie Schlotter also said rental prices for the units are too high.

“They’re over-charging. It’s supposed to be more affordable,” she said.

The city council report detailing the first 100 laneway houses in the city estimated that the rental rates range between $1,000 and $2,100 for one and two bedroom units.

Laneway houses typically take the place of an alleyway garage on most average-sized properties.

Of the first 100 laneway houses built in the city, only five were the more affordable studio size units.

One of the biggest manufacturers of laneway houses in Vancouver is Smallworks, which has been pre-fabricating the houses for over five years.

Smallworks owner Jake Fry said that despite the novelty and high rental rates of laneway houses in Vancouver, the structures still have the potential to improve on the availability of low-income housing in the city.

“I think it will help out students and lots of people in making the city an affordable place,” he said. “[But] people coming to us are already going [for] a slightly higher-end unit, it’s not like they’re looking at affordable housing.”

Smallworks employees fabricate the door frame of a new laneway house

While companies like Smallworks tend to focus on building structures for families, Fry said the real potential for student housing rests with units being constructed alongside a new property.

“Those laneway homes that are going in with the principle structure, they actually don’t need the same cost recovery,” said Fry, who estimated that building a laneway rental property alongside a new home could reduce the overall cost by as much as 30 per cent.