A shift in public awareness, along with stricter laws and enforcement, may be why drunken-driving fatalities decreased 12 percent in seven years, a new federal study shows.

In 1989, 39.2 percent of traffic deaths involved at least one person who was legally drunk, down from 46.3 percent in 1982, the national Centers for Disease Control said.Some 17,849 Americans died in such accidents in 1989, down 12 percent from 20,356 in 1982.

Reasons for the improvement may include increased public distaste for drunken drivers, changes in state laws penalizing drunken driving, increased enforcement and higher drinking ages, the CDC concluded.

"It's probably a combination of things, not the least of which is public awareness," said a science researcher with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

"In the early '80s, we had big decreases, which had to do with the peaks in public awareness," he said. "Then . . . new laws kicked in, along with the 21 drinking age, and there's been a steady decrease based upon those laws."