The percentage of traffic fatalities caused by drunken driving dropped to a record low in 1997 but still made up more than one-third of automobile deaths, the government said Sunday.

The Department of Transportation reported 16,189 alcohol-related traffic deaths in 1997, 38.6 percent of the total. That was a decrease of about 1,000 deaths from 1996, when drunken driving was responsible for 40.9 percent of the 42,065 traffic deaths. In 1982, 57.3 percent of the 43,945 fatalities were alcohol-related.The administration hailed the figures, being formally published today, as evidence that measures such as zero tolerance laws for young drivers have helped curb drunken driving.

"This is good news, but we must continue to do more to ensure that this decline continues," President Clinton said in a statement.

"A strong message and tough laws are bringing about an important change in society's attitude toward drunken driving, but we must continue our efforts to reduce the number of these tragedies even further," said Trans-por-ta-tion Secretary Rodney Slater. The department has set a goal of reducing alcohol-related traffic deaths to 11,000 annually by 2005.

For the first time since record-keeping began in 1975, alcohol-related deaths were below 40 per-cent of all traffic fatalities. And drunken driving deaths among teens aged 15 to 20 dropped 5 percent from 2,324 in 1996 to 2,209 in 1997, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.