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(Add Friedman quotes, background)
WASHINGTON, March 31 (Reuters) - The head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration defended his agency's decision not to open a formal investigation into defective ignition switches in some General Motors cars and pointed a finger at the automaker for not sharing information with the agency.
In testimony prepared for a congressional hearing on Tuesday, NHTSA acting Administrator David Friedman said: "GM had critical information that would have helped identify this defect."
GM has recalled 2.6 million cars to repair a defective ignition switch that is linked to at least 13 deaths. The automaker has said it first learned of problems with the part in 2001, before the Saturn Ions, Chevy Cobalts and other recalled models were even produced.
The Center for Auto Safety and other watchdog groups have criticized NHTSA for not opening a formal investigation in 2007, when evidence had mounted of the deadly defect.
But Friedman, who joined the agency last year, said NHTSA did not have enough data to support a more extensive probe.
"The data available at the time of (the 2007) evaluation did not indicate a safety defect or defect trend that would warrant the agency opening a formal investigation," he said.
Friedman said the GM cars that had since been recalled generally had the same rate of accidents and injuries as similar vehicles from other manufacturers.
He called the GM probe "a difficult case," but defended his agency's actions.
"We are not aware of any information to suggest that NHTSA failed to properly carry out its safety mission based on the data available to it and the process it followed," Friedman said.
Reporting by Eric Beech; Editing by Peter Cooney