DETROIT - For Jocelyn Mousel, things went horribly wrong at the point where the rubber met the road.
On a freeway last summer, the tread on a rear Firestone radial ATX tire on Mousel's 1993 Ford Explorer suddenly peeled away like the skin off an orange. The vehicle clipped a car at 65 mph, spun wildly and overturned in a ditch, leaving Mousel and her husband dangling unscathed from their seat belts.
The couple blamed simple tire failure. But they don't now, given Bridgestone/Firestone Inc.'s recall Wednesday of 6.5 million tires, including the model involved in the Mousels' wreck.
The recall comes amid government scrutiny over whether the tires caused hundreds of crashes and at least 46 deaths. Critics wonder why it took years to rid the roads of tires they say showed signs of problems as far back as the early 1990s.
''I do think it took too long,'' said Mousel, 33. ''I also think I should have put up a stink long ago, but I thought it was just something I didn't catch.''
Now at issue: Exactly when did Ford Motor Co. and the tires' maker know there were possible problems with the tires?
Ford says the extent of the problem only began to come to light in May, when federal traffic-safety officials launched a preliminary investigation into complaints that Firestone tires peeled off their casings, sometimes at high speeds.
''We think we moved very quickly because this was a very important issue potentially impacting safety and consumer satisfaction,'' Ford spokesman Mike Vaughn said. ''We're talking just days ago that we got the bottom line.''
Bridgestone/Firestone spokesman Ken Fields said he had no information to support claims that the company knew the tires were trouble years ago.
Vaughn said Ford's first reports of tire failures on its sport utility vehicles arose last August, when the No. 2 automaker replaced Firestone tires on 6,800 Explorers and Mercury Mountaineers in Saudi Arabia.
Among other factors, Vaughn said, the tire failures there were viewed as being linked to overloading, under-inflation and high-speed driving for extended periods. In some cases, he said, the problems were linked to ''unique usage patterns,'' including motorists' flattening their tires to drive off-road on rubber-degenerating hot sand.
Late last year, Vaughn said, a Ford study in the Southwest examined 63 Ford vehicles with now-recalled Wilderness AT tires with an average of 30,000 miles of wear. The conclusion: no evidence of tread separation, Vaughn said.
Still, Ford in February replaced Firestone tires on 300 1997 Explorers in Thailand and Malaysia, Vaughn said. Three months later, the automaker did the same with 39,812 Explorers and light trucks in South America.
Though not accepting blame, Ford has said it swapped tires for free on the 46,912 vehicles in other countries ''as a customer-satisfaction issue.''
''When we saw an issue in these overseas markets, we took action,'' Vaughn said. ''Until now, the failure rate was not there, as far as we could see in North America.''
National Highway Traffic Safety Administration spokesman Rae Tyson said complaints over Firestone tires had trickled in since 1991 until ''a milestone'' early this year.
In February, Houston's KHOU-TV aired a segment about possible problems with Firestone radial ATX tires on Ford Explorers. After that, a spike in complaints from Texans prompted the agency to begin evaluating the matter, Tyson said.
Traffic-safety investigators called the people who complained, pinning down details such as sizes of the tires, the vehicles involved and the tire failure's circumstances, Tyson said.
Bridgestone/Firestone responded angrily to the KHOU-TV report, contending the station ''delivered the false messages that Radial ATX tires are dangerous.''
In a letter to KHOU-TV, the Nashville, Tenn.-based subsidiary of Tokyo-based Bridgestone Corp. said the accidents cited in the report were ''clearly caused by external factors, such as punctures.'' It said the station should, instead of ''spreading misinformation,'' tell viewers how to properly maintain their tires and supply advice on proper driving methods when a tire blows out.
And Ford, which has sold 17 million Explorers, Rangers and F-Series pickup trucks over the past 10 years with the questioned tires as original equipment, said at the time, ''millions of these vehicles have logged billions of safe miles.''
Last month, two Florida families sued Ford and Bridgestone/Firestone, alleging tire treads on their Ford Explorers separated and caused fatal wrecks. Similar suits have been filed for several years, prompting the suggestions that Ford and Bridgestone/Firestone have been long aware of the tire failures.
Ford spokeswoman Susan Krusel pointed out that ''nearly every year of every vehicle'' Ford makes has been a subject of lawsuits.
''Just because there's a lawsuit against one of your products, it doesn't trigger a trend or investigation,'' she said. Many alleged cases of tread separation turned out to be tire punctures, she said.
And Krusel said no judgments have been awarded against Ford over the questioned tires, with the only case decided by a jury - in Arizona in 1997 - resulting in a verdict favoring Ford and Bridgestone/Firestone.
Tyson defended the traffic-safety agency against the criticism that it was too slow to act.
''We've had defects investigations that have gone on for years,'' he said. ''Sometimes situations are straightforward, sometimes they're not. ... I don't think anyone would want us to force a recall when there's not a problem.''
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