US driving deaths dropped to their lowest level ever recorded last year, which officials attribute to public service campaigns, less driving and safer roads and vehicles, government data showed Thursday.

Despite the decrease, roads remain deadly, killing tens of thousands of Americans each year.

Projected traffic fatalities for 2009, places the highway death count at 33,963, an 8.9 percent drop compared to 2008's 37,261 reported deaths, declining for the 15th consecutive quarter, the US Transportation Department said.

The 2009 fatality rate declined to the lowest level since records began in 1954, down to 1.16 deaths per 100 million miles traveled in a vehicle, a drop from 1.25 fatalities per 100 million miles traveled the previous year.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) attributed the drop to several factors, including tougher laws and public enforcement campaigns like "Click It or Ticket" to encourage more seatbelt use and "Drunk Driving. Over the Limit. Under Arrest" to prevent drunk and distracted driving.

"This is exciting news, but there are still far too many people dying in traffic accidents," US Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said in a statement.

"Drivers need to keep their hands on the steering wheel and their focus on the road in order to stay safe."

Speaking on ABC television's "Good Morning America," LaHood said part of the decline was also linked to changing drivers' habits.

"Part of it is that people are driving less," he said. "And I think people are not in their car as often as they once were because of the economy."

Yet preliminary data from the Federal Highway Administration showed that the number of vehicle miles traveled jumped by about 6.6 billion miles in 2009, a 0.2 percent increase.

Final figures for 2009 fatalities will be available this summer.

Traffic fatalities have been declining steadily ever since peaking in 2005 at 43,510. They have now dropped about 22 percent from that year to 2009.

The report came as NHTSA has come under scrutiny for its oversight of the auto industry in the wake of number one carmaker Toyota's recall of over eight million vehicles worldwide, including around six million in the United States alone.

NHTSA has already linked 52 deaths and 40 accidents to car crashes said to be caused by problems with the accelerator pedal in some Toyota models.