A U.S. auto safety group says that 303 people were killed in car crashes in the last decade while riding in General Motors cars in which airbags failed to deploy.
The Center for Auto Safety, a Washington watchdog group, says the death toll is far greater than the 12 deaths that GM has linked to a defect in the ignition systems of several models it manufactured from 2003 to 2007. The problem caused cars to shut off while being driven, disabling the airbags.
GM, the second biggest automaker in the world to Japan's Toyota Motors, said it was "pure speculation" that the defective switches caused the accidents cited by the safety group.
General Motors last month recalled 1.6 million Chevrolet, Pontiac and Saturn models worldwide to check the ignition switches. Almost all of the models have since been discontinued, but company records submitted to the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration show that GM knew of the ignition switch problem on its cars as early as 2001.
The safety group criticized the agency for not acting much sooner to order a recall, saying the only way it "could not see a defect trend is if it closed its eyes."
GM said it has hired outside investigators to look at its handling of the ignition switch problem, while U.S. lawmakers and federal prosecutors in New York have started their own inquiries.