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Inside his unmarked squad car, St. Paul Police Sgt. Jeremy Ellison studied the faces of drivers as they waited at a traffic-jammed stoplight. Finally, he saw a subtle sign of trouble: A man behind the wheel of a minivan stared down at an electronic device for several seconds, oblivious to everything else on the road.
Was he dialing a phone, which is legal? Or was he checking e-mail -- which is not?
Ellison emerged from his squad car, sneaked up to the driver's window and peered inside: Facebook. Busted.
"I can see it, and there's nothing they can say," Ellison said.
It was an uncommon catch. As Americans become ever more glued to their mobile phones, the use of the devices behind the wheel is fast becoming one of the riskiest road hazards, involved in nearly a quarter of crashes. But four years into Minnesota's anti-texting law, authorities say the measure is proving difficult to enforce.
Only 1,300 texting tickets were issued in Minnesota last year. That's a tiny fraction of the nearly 202,000 issued for speeding and more than 30,000 for drunken driving.
With the law allowing drivers to dial and talk on phones, officers often have to take a driver's word about what they were doing on their mobile device before they issue a ticket, which costs around $120.
"The officer has to be nearly on top of the other driver to be able to make a determination," said Frank Rondoni, president of the Suburban Hennepin County Prosecutors Association.
Some 400 law enforcement agencies around the state recently had a daylong crackdown searching for distracted drivers, part of a nationwide push to raise awareness about the dangers. The National Transportation Safety Board is also advocating for a total ban on drivers using portable electronic devices -- something no state has done yet.
Part of life
Nearly half of American adults now own smartphones, according to the Pew Research Center. Texting among teens also continues to rise, Pew found, with older teen girls sending a median of 100 texts a day in 2011.
But in the car, those habits can be deadly. The risk of crashing jumps four times for talking and anywhere from eight to 23 times for texting, studies show.
Most people think they're different than other drivers; that they're capable of multi-tasking behind the wheel, researchers have found. But reading a text message for five seconds at highway speed means a driver will travel the distance of a football field without looking up.
"The problem is, you don't know that you're not engaged in the driving until the emergency happens and you don't respond to it fast enough, and the results can be catastrophic," said David Teater, of the National Safety Council. "People get away with it day after day after day, and they think 'Hey, I must be good at this.' "
In a marked Minnesota State Patrol squad car, Lt. David Graham whirred down the highways of southern suburbs recently trying to catch glimpses of drivers illegally using phones. Even on a day he was getting paid overtime to look for texters, he had trouble catching them.
"Most of them now text below windshield level," he said.
After two hours and no texting tickets, Graham spotted one as he pulled up to a red light in Eagan. A man inside a blue Chevy incessantly tapped a white device down by his steering wheel.
But by the time Graham pulled him over and approached him, the white device was out of sight. The man said he had actually been adjusting his stereo with a remote -- a legal task.
When Graham asked to see the man's phone, its white case gave him away.
"I'm gonna write him," Graham said back in his squad car as he filled out a ticket. "I'm comfortable testifying in court that he was texting."
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.
"I think we'd like to see a statute that doesn't have so many exceptions," said Tim Richards, a supervising attorney in the Minneapolis city attorney's office. "If you're dialing a cellphone to make a telephone call or if you're texting on a key pad ... you're creating the same risk to public safety on the roadway."
The way the law is written, Richards pointed out, it might even be technically legal to play a video game, such as Angry Birds, which doesn't have to involve the Internet.
"The law is a good beginning," Richards said, "but it's not encompassing enough."
Instead, drivers are often cited for other infractions, such as swerving in a lane or failing to use a turn signal. Tickets for careless and inattentive driving are typically more serious charges involving drivers putting someone or something in danger, officials said.
While authorities often subpoena phone records after a fatal crash, that isn't practical for traffic stops, they say. Officers often request to see a driver's phone, but there's question on whether they can demand it if the driver refuses.
"I think arguments can be made on both sides on that issue," Richards said.
For all the exceptions in Minnesota's law, other states have similar enforcement problems, national officials say.
"We don't really have a model law yet," said Jonathan Adkins, communications director for the Governors Highway Safety Association. "States are really laboratories to try to figure this out."
So far, 38 states have passed texting bans for all drivers, including three since April, and 10 states have passed bans against using hand-held cellphones, according to the Governors Highway Safety Association. Some researchers point out that talking on a cellphone hands-free is not much different than using the phone itself, however; both are about as dangerous as driving drunk, a University of Utah study found.
"Texting bans have not been difficult to pass, but it's difficult to pass much more than that," Adkins said.
While it takes creativity to enforce against texting, concentrated efforts yield results. Extra patrols in New York and Connecticut found it helpful to put spotters on overpasses and to use unmarked SUVs and trucks to get a better view of drivers.
Teater, of the National Safety Council, said he thinks the laws are enforceable the way they are, but that police need more time and the resources to do it.
Authorities in Minnesota are sending a message to drivers through media campaigns and social buzz created by extra enforcement.
"When society's attitude towards a behavior changes, that's when we truly see an effect," State Patrol spokesman Lt. Eric Roeske said. "We can't enforce our way out of these problems."
One recent afternoon, six drivers in St. Paul got the message first-hand.
Stopped at a light on Lexington Parkway, Dean Pierce, of Shoreview, checked his Blackberry for an e-mail from his office. Sgt. Ellison soon knocked on his window.
"I'm supposed to respond to problems at work on an ongoing basis," Pierce sighed, explaining that he was a computer administrator while Ellison wrote a ticket.
Pierce said he thought it was OK to look at the message while his car was stopped, and that he would have pulled over it had he needed to e-mail back.
In the modern world, he said, he's expected to respond when things go haywire.
"It's just pretty much the way it is," he said. "For my job, this has been true since cellphones came out."
Pam Louwagie • 612-673-7102