CHARLES FLEMING - General Motors should be prepared to acknowledge that more than 13 people died as a result of faulty ignition switches installed in its vehicles, the head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said.

The company was aware of problems with the faulty switches, which can disable the vehicles'?? air bags, and it owes ??straight answers?? to the families of the victims?? however many they may be.

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"GM knew about the safety defect, but did not act to protect Americans from that defect until this year,"?? NHTSA acting administrator David Friedman said Tuesday in a statement. "??NHTSA has been assisting families by identifying whether or not their loved ones are in the number counted by GM. The final death toll associated with this safety defect is not known to NHTSA, but we believe itâ??s likely that more than 13 lives were lost."??

The Detroit automaker on Tuesday repeated its position.

"??To the best of our knowledge, there have been 13 driver or front-seat occupant fatalities that may be related to the ignition-switch defect,"?? the company said. "??That's after a thorough analysis of the information available to us."

GM has said it is aware of 47 front-impact accidents associated with the ignition-switch failure, having earlier put that number at 32.

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The ignition-switch problem has led to recalls of 2.6 million GM vehicles, and prompted federal fines and multiple investigations into why GM neglected to issue the recalls for more than a decade. The company has said it is taking several hundred million dollars in write-downs related to the recalls.

GM may also face civil lawsuits and criminal charges,

Clarence Ditlow, executive director of the consumer advocacy group Center for Auto Safety, said the true number of deaths related to the switch defect could reach into triple digits.

"??We identified 303 cases, in just the [GM] Cobalts and [GM'??s Saturn] Ions, where the air bag did not deploy and a front seat occupant was killed," Ditlow said. "??That is the upper end of the universe. The number 13 is the lower end."

Ditlow said his organization, a 1970s creation of consumer advocate Ralph Nader, hired Austin, Texas-based Freidman Research Corp. to study data from the Fatal Analysis Reporting System, which records all automotive auto fatalities in the United States.

Investigators searched, Ditlow said, for all non-rear-end collisions where the air bag did not deploy, in a Cobalt or Ion, and where a front seat occupant was killed.

The research concluded that at least 303 fatalities could be associated with the ignition-switch failure, which GM has acknowledged can cause the car'??s ignition key to move from the "??on"?? to the "??accessory"?? position, ??disabling the power brakes, power steering and air bags.

But Ditlow said those search terms would not capture all the possible deaths related to the switch problem.

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He cited one Pennsylvania incident in which a woman driving an Ion found the ignition cutting off and the car stalling in rising water. The car was swept off the road.

"The woman and her infant child were killed,"?? Ditlow said. "??And that would not have shown up in the research."??