Four years before the National Transportation Safety Board released a report claiming that fatalities caused by distracted driving now outnumber the fatalities caused by drunk driving, Minnesota lawmakers recognized the threat and passed a paw banning the use of handheld devices by drivers.

Since that time, however, Minnesota police officers have struggled to enforce the law. This is because the Minnesota law allows driving to talk or dial their cell phones, but not text or send emails. In other words, a police officer either has to actually witness the driver breaking the law (by seeing him send a text) or just take the drivers word for it.

Last year, just 1,300 texting tickets were issued in Minnesota, a fraction compared to the nearly 202,000 issued for speeding and more than 30,000 for drunken driving. Police know there are more drivers violating the law but they have trouble catching them in the act because of the limitations of the law and what it bans, or doesn’t ban.

Minnesota’s texting law specifically prohibits drivers from using a “wireless communications device” to compose, read or send electronic messages — including texts, e-mails, Web pages and other similar data — while a vehicle is part of traffic, which includes being stopped at a light.

Drivers may talk on their phones, however, and dial them. The law also contains exceptions for “hands-free” communications, emergency situations and emergency vehicles.

Minnesota police have repeatedly conducted statewide distracted driving enforcement patrols, focusing on those drivers they can find who are violating the statewide ban, but they have the same trouble identifying guilty drivers during those campaigns as they do during regular hours, so the efforts are more for show than actual enforcement.

Despite the problems with the Minnesota distracted driving ban, police there say they are in favor of limiting the use of handheld devices by drivers, regards of how difficult it might be to enforce the ban.