Exclusive: Officials Cite Education, Economy for Driving Deaths Hitting Record Lows

Figures fall to lowest levels since record-keeping began.

March 11, 2010— -- Motor vehicle accidents kill thousands of people every year, but driving fatalities have dropped to their lowest level since the numbers were first recorded 55 years ago, according to a report by the U.S. Department of Transportation to be released today.

Overall traffic fatalities reported at the end of 2009 declined for the 15th consecutive quarter, according to the report.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration attributed the decline to a number of factors, including safer roads, safer vehicles, stricter laws and enforcement campaigns such as "Click It or Ticket" and "Drunk Driving. Over the Limit. Under Arrest."

"Those safety programs worked," U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood told "Good Morning America."

"They've taken drunk drivers off the road. And they've required people to use their seat belts. And people get it."

But, LaHood said, another reason for the decline in deaths is the change in people's driving 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."

The number of highway fatalities declined 8.9 percent last year to 33,963 from 37,261 in 2008, according to projections. If the numbers hold true, fatalities will have fallen to their lowest level since the government first started tracking data on traffic fatalities in 1954.

Although the roads are still deadly, officials believe the awareness programs have played a role in the drop in fatalities, particularly the programs aimed at distracted drivers.

Statistics show that 80 percent of all crashes and 65 percent of near-crashes resulted from some kind of distraction experienced when drivers were either eating or drinking, reading, listening to music, or talking texting on their cell phones.

Campaign: 'Txtng & Drivng ... It Can Wait'

Drivers younger than 24 were the worst offenders, but the trend has caught on among all ages, according to 2009 figures from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

In response, a new, hard-hitting public service campaign from AT&T is intended to curb texting while driving.

The wireless company's stark campaign highlights true stories and focuses on the last text message that was sent or received before someone was injured or killed because of texting and driving.

In one of the television spots, the text "Where u at?" flashes on the screen and a mother says, "This is the text my daughter was reading when she drove into oncoming traffic."

Her daughter, 18-year-old Mariah West, lost control of her car. She died.

Cathy Coughlin, AT&T's senior executive vice president and global marketing officer, said the company explored several campaign concepts.

"We didn't have our 'Aha' moment until we asked one of our focus groups to take out their devices and read the last text they received," Coughlin said in a statement. "When we asked if that particular message was worth the potential risk of reading while driving at 65 mph, you could have heard a pin drop. That's when we realized the message 'It can wait' was effective in educating consumers about the dangers of texting while driving."

AT&T is the latest to join the effort. Verizon Wireless and Allstate Insurance also have launched campaigns to discourage distracted driving.

States Enact Strict Legislation

Twenty-eight percent of accidents involve talking or texting on cell phones, according to a new study released by the National Safety Council.

Studies have found that drivers who use their cell phones for talking or texting have much slower response times than those who do not. They also have slower reaction times than people with blood alcohol levels of 0.08.

In 2008, a passenger train engineer who was texting on his cell phone failed to obey a red signal. As a result, his train crashed into an oncoming freight train. Twenty-five people were killed, and more than 130 were injured.

Also that year, 13-year-old Frances "Margay" Schee was killed in a Florida car accident when the driver of a tractor trailer hit her school bus. The bus burst into flames, killing the girl. She was the only student on the bus.

Reinaldo Gonzales, the driver of the truck, told police he was distracted by his cell phone.The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said that in 2008, driver inattention resulted in nearly 6,000 deaths and about 500,000 injuries.

Across the country, lawmakers struggle with the growing problem.

Earlier this year, the Department of Transportation prohibited texting for drivers of large commercial vehicles such as trucks and buses.

Eighteen states and the District of Columbia have banned texting while driving, and seven have banned the use of hand-held cell phones while driving.

ABC News' Sarah Herndon contributed to this report.

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