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Driver in texting-linked crash dies

Crossed center line on Route 18

Dennis J. McElhinney, a 25-year-old West Bridgewater man, has died of injuries sustained in a crash that police say was caused by texting while driving.

A spokeswoman at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center said McElhinney died Sunday, a week after a head-on crash on Route 18 in Bridgewater that also injured a second driver.

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McElhinney’s family could not be reached for comment Monday.

He was texting on his cellphone when his vehicle swerved across the center line into oncoming traffic near 1501 Bedford St. at about 6 a.m. June 9, police said.

“Everyone understands that texting is dangerous, but sometimes it’s hard for people to believe it until something like this happens,” Bridgewater police Lieutenant Tom Schlatz said. “I don’t think anyone receives a text from someone that’s worth endangering your life or the life of others.”

McElhinney, who was driving north, collided with a southbound pickup truck being driven by Michael J. Gerety, 52, of Brockton, who suffered minor injuries, police said.

McElhinney’s vehicle then struck another car heading south. Its driver, Margaret L. Saucier, 44, of Rockland, was not hurt.

McElhinney graduated from West Bridgewater Middle-
Senior High School in 2006. He worked at Lowe’s Home Improvement and at Bank of America, according to his Facebook profile.

In February, he and his girlfriend became engaged to be married, according to Facebook.

Police had cited McElhinney last week for texting while driving, negligent operation of a motor vehicle from mobile phone use resulting in injury, and a marked-lane violation.

Texting by drivers is banned in 41 states and the District of Columbia. Citations in Massachusetts have been on the rise each year since the practice was made illegal in September 2010.

The ban does not simply apply to typing text messages, but encompasses composing, sending, or reading any electronic message on a device connected to the Internet while operating a motor vehicle. The fine for a first offense is $100.

McElhinney’s death comes in the same month that several bills aimed at restricting cellphone use in motor vehicles will be heard at the State House.

Among the bills on the docket for June 26 are House proposals to allow only hands-free use of cellphones while driving and to increase penalties for texting while driving. A Senate proposal aims to ban the use of mobile phones while driving altogether.

“I see people texting on every road I drive on,” said Representative Joseph F. Wagner, a Chicopee Democrat who is sponsoring the hands-free bill. McElhinney’s “death is a tragedy, but it will not be the last tragedy unless we do something,” he said. “If you take phones out of people’s hands, enforcement will be clear cut.”

There were 286 citations for texting while driving in Massachusetts over the last four months of 2010, according to the state Department of Transportation. The number jumped to 1,146 citations in 2011, and to 1,711 last year. There were 520 citations handed out from January to April this year.

Jeff Larson — president of the Safe Roads Alliance, a nonprofit based in North Andover — said texting while driving remains a problem because it is difficult for police to distinguish between it and making a call, which is still legal.

“The Massachusetts law was flawed from the very start because there was no hands-free requirement,” he said. “Everyone knows [texting] is dangerous, but not enough people are getting caught and ticketed for it, and because of that, the behavior is continuing.”

Mary Maguire, Massachusetts spokeswoman for AAA New England, echoed Larson’s sentiment, adding, “Texting is the great triple threat because it takes your hands off the wheel, your eyes off the road, and your mind off driving.”

During the average 4.6 seconds it takes to send a text, a driver going 60 miles per hour will cover more than the length of a football field, she said.

Alyssa A. Botelho can be reached at alyssa.botelho@ globe.com. Follow her on Twitter at AlyssaABotelho.
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