On Thursday, a new state law banning texting while driving takes effect. Its supporters hope it will cut down on the number of traffic accidents attributed to distracted driving. Drivers caught texting, emailing or Web surfing will face a fine, but talking on a handheld cellphone will still be legal, which could make enforcement of the law tougher for police.

The law, signed by Gov. Tom Corbett in December, originally banned all cellphone use without a hands-free device, but House Republicans removed that provision. The new law also supersedes existing local ordinances. Philadelphia, Harrisburg, Wilkes-Barre and Erie already have bans on handheld cellphone use. Allentown passed one, but it was overturned by a judge. Once the new state law goes into effect, these local bans will become unenforceable.

The new law makes texting a primary offense, meaning that police can pull you over for that reason alone. Those caught texting will be fined $50 but won’t receive any points on their driving record or have their phones taken away.

But police say that determining who’s texting and who’s dialing a phone number will be difficult. A Pennsylvania State Police spokeswoman said officers will attempt to observe drivers while they’re in motion. “For example, if a motorist continues to manipulate the device over an extended distance with no apparent voice communication,” she explained.

There seems to be little argument over whether texting is a dangerous form of distracted driving. Many people who do it admit that it isn’t a safe practice. More contentious is the debate over whether texting bans actually prevent car accidents. According to a 2011 study by the Governors Highway Safety Association, at least one driver was found to be distracted in 15 to 30 percent of traffic accidents nationwide, and that texting increased the risk of accidents. But the same study determined that texting bans were not effective at stopping the habit.

But that’s not going to stop state troopers and local police officers from pulling over texting drivers. “The road should always be your only focus,” said state Rep. Michelle Brownlee. “No text or email is worth risking a fatal accident.”

Source: Philly.com, “Pennsylvania law banning texting by drivers to take effect,” Amy Worden, March 4, 2012