Supplier miscues are traceable to more safety recalls in 2002 than any other single cause, but new data suggest auto makers should get back to nuts and bolts themselves.

’01 Honda Accord, for second time, was recalled for “improperly manufactured” seatbelt buckles.

Of the 144 vehicle campaigns conducted last year by the U.S. market’s major manufacturers and niche auto makers, 32 are linked to supplier gaffes. Meanwhile, assembly-related glitches – many of which involved loose nuts, untightened bolts and faulty welds – numbered 31.

However, if vehicle design issues are added to assembly woes, OEMs would be on the hook for an additional 26 recall campaigns, a Ward’s analysis of data compiled by the National Highway Traffic Safety Admin. indicates.

The data, scheduled for publication later this year but obtained by Ward’s, suggests suppliers were relatively democratic with their foul-ups in 2002. No single auto maker suffered more than another, though Ford Motor Co. is notable by its absence.

Contrary to 2001 when it was victimized by a pair of supplier-related recalls that each had implications for a million vehicles, none of Ford’s 16 recalls in 2002 are directly traceable to its supply chain.

Overall, suppliers fared better last year than the previous year when they were linked to 35 safety recalls. (see related story: Official ’01 Recall Count Shames Suppliers)

However, a pattern emerges with regard to restraint systems. Of the 32 supplier-related campaigns, 11 are linked to reported failures of seatbelts or airbags.

That’s no cause for alarm, offers Louise Goeser, Ford vice president-quality, explaining a built-in bias exists when NHTSA investigates restraint systems. Whenever a question is raised about seatbelts or airbags, “any issue could be a safety issue,” Goeser tells Ward’s.

While General Motors Corp. leads the industry with five of the 32 supplier-related recalls, American Honda Motor Co. stands out. All four of its supplier-related campaigns involved restraint systems, though the number of implicated vehicles is miniscule in every case but one.

Of nearly 16,500 Accords and Civics, model-years ’00 and ’01, NHTSA says the center rear seatbelt buckles “were improperly manufactured.” Therefore, owners “may experience difficulty unfastening the belt after (a) crash.”

These vehicles also were the subject of a 2001 recall involving the right and left rear seatbelt buckles.

Meanwhile, GM harbors no apparent malice against its suppliers. “We don’t want to throw them under the bus,” says a GM insider. “It’s our name that’s on the cars.”

As far as assembly-related recalls are concerned, GM has no choice but to blame itself. And it has plenty of opportunity.

Of 31 assembly-related campaigns identified by Ward’s, 12 belong to GM. And eight of those involve fastening problems.

For example, more than 18,000 ’03 Chevrolet Express and Savanna vans were subject to recall because the right-hand tie rod end nut may not have been tightened adequately. The result – possible separation of the tie rod from the steering knuckle.

But the biggest single loser on the vehicle-build front was DaimlerChrysler AG’s Chrysler Group. It recalled more than 1.5 million minivans, model-years ’96 through ’98, because “the clockspring assembly may have been wound incorrectly during the vehicle assembly process.”

If uncorrected, airbag function could be compromised, NHTSA says. Dealers were instructed to replace the clockspring assembly on all vehicles with 70,000 miles (112,000 km) or less. An extended lifetime warranty also was placed on the new part.

Design-related recalls were felt across the industry – from AM General Corp. to Volvo Car. The former recalled 25 ’03 H1s because fuel lines were subject to chafing against the vehicles’ transmission case. The latter recalled 65,000 850, 854 and 855 cars because “excessive” seat cushion compression raised the risk of damage to seat-heater wiring.

The worst single design-related recall campaign involved nearly 560,000 GM vehicles – ’00-’02 GMC Denali and Yukon, Cadillac Escalade and Chevrolet Tahoe – for second-row head restraints that, when folded, had a pair of “potential pinch points,” NHTSA says.

“If a person were to insert their finger(s) into the pinch point where the head restraint folds, it could trap and pinch the finger(s) causing injury.”

Protective covers were installed to correct the problem.

Ford suffered what likely was the most embarrassing design-related recall of the year. Nearly 370,000 ’00-’02 Taurus and Sable sedans equipped with adjustable pedals were subject to a form of separation anxiety – the controls were too close together.

“Simultaneous application of both the brake and the accelerator…could result in a customer experiencing an ‘unintended vehicle speed increase,’ or a perceived ‘unable-to-stop’ condition,” NHTSA warns.

Owners of these vehicles received a refresher course on the feature’s operation, while dealers widened the distance between the pedals.

Structural integrity issues – including corrosion and unexpected wear – were linked to 23 recall campaigns. Honda’s lone recall in this category was the largest and was responsible for sending its affected vehicle total over the million mark for the first time since 1995. (see related story: Ford Goes from Worst to First on Recall Chart; GM, DC and Honda Totals Up)

“On certain sedans, coupes, hatchbacks and SUVs, electrical contacts in the ignition switch can degrade due to the high electrical current passing through,” NHTSA says of the campaign that had implications for various Honda and Acura vehicles, some dating back to model-year ’97. “Worn contacts could cause the engine to stall without warning, increasing the risk of a crash.”

The cause of last year’s largest single recall – 1.6 million ’93-’98 Grand Cherokees and Grand Wagoneers – arguably defies categorization. Says NHTSA: “If a driver has not placed the shifter lever fully into the ‘park’ position and leaves the vehicle running, the vehicle may unexpectedly move rearward after seeming to be stable.”

To solve the problem, dealers equip the floor-shifter assembly with a secondary detent system. But Chrysler notes NHTSA’s investigation “did not identify any defect.”