Congress demands answers after I-Team 'death wobble' report

March 19, 2012 7:16:55 PM PDT
The I-Team has an update to a story we brought you last month about Jeep owners who've been experiencing violent shaking at highway speeds. Jeep owners now have two members of Congress on their side, including a Bay Area lawmaker and a powerful advocate of consumer rights.

You wouldn't expect violent shaking to happen on the highway; videos from YouTube show how frequently it does to Jeep owners. They call it the "death wobble."

"It literally feels like the front end of your vehicle is going to shake apart," Jeep owner Jeri McNeill said.

The I-team told you last month about McNeill and Christopher O'Halloran, two Jeep owners from Oakland who say it's happening so often, they've started documenting their wobbles. I've experienced it on my own Jeep and so has my producer. It generally happens at highway speed. The vehicle hits a bump, the wheels start to shake and the steering column vibrates. It only stops when the vehicle slows down or stops.

Our investigation has now gotten the attention of two members of Congress -- Silicon Valley Rep. Anna Eshoo, D-Palo Alto, and Henry Waxman, the ranking member of the Energy and Commerce Committee. In a joint letter to the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA), they ask the agency to explain why consumers haven't been warned about the problem. They ask NHTSA to detail how much they know about the problem and what they've done to remedy it. In the letter they write, "The Jeep "death wobble" is a serious safety issue that must be evaluated by NHTSA."

Eshoo issued a statement to the I-Team, saying, "...my constituents and drivers across our country deserve to know how serious and widespread this problem is. Drivers should not be kept in the dark about a potentially serious safety issue, and I look forward to a complete accounting from NHTSA."

"All manufacturer vehicles equipped with a solid axle are susceptible to vibration," Michael Palese, a spokesperson for Chrysler, the makers of Jeeps, told the I-Team.

But we found more than 600 complaints in NHTSA's database about Jeeps wobbling or vibrating since 1995, mostly Wranglers. No deaths have been reported, but at least five people report being injured.

Jeep denies the injuries were because of its vehicles.

"This is not a safety issue, and there are no injuries involving Chrysler Group vehicles related to this allegation," Palese said. Jeep suggests that the problem can be corrected "...by tightening or replacing other loose or worn parts..."

"I've experienced it hundreds of times and even to this day, the heart, it definitely pounds," mechanic Scott Forbes, who specializes in Jeeps said. He believes the problem is most often caused by the track bar, an integral part of the steering system.

Jeep says the problem can be fixed by "..balancing or changing the tires, or a front end alignment..." or "...installing a new steering dampener..." according to Palese. But many Jeep owners report that even with a new steering dampener, the wobble returns.

NHTSA says because the problem is intermittent and predictable, that the vehicle remains controllable "...and that the vibrations can be mitigated by applying the brakes."

But after our story aired, we received calls and email from around the world from people who said their vehicle was anything but controllable during a "death wobble."

"I was trying to slow down, the vehicle was totally out of control," Jeep owner Doug Frampton of Petaluma said.

Frampton says he was nearly rear-ended by an RV during a "death wobble" on Highway 101.

Retired CHP officer David Fairbrother of Mill Valley says he spun out on I-5.

"I lost control of the wheel and the vehicle and it basically began to spin out of control across from the slow lane to the fast lane and into the center divider," he said.

In both incidents no one was injured, but both men are frustrated that neither Jeep nor NHTSA has done much to prevent it from happening again.

"You shouldn't have to mitigate an engineering problem by braking or steering," Fairbrother said. "A car should just drive normally, period."

Chrysler Group issued the following statement today:

"Chrysler Group vehicles meet or exceed every applicable government safety standard and have excellent safety records. All manufacturer vehicles equipped with a solid axle are susceptible to vibration and, if experienced, it can be corrected by performing minor maintenance items, such as properly balancing or changing the tires, or a front end alignment, installing a new steering dampener, or by tightening or replacing other loose or worn parts. In fact, most reported incidents -- in all manufacturer vehicles equipped with or without a solid axle -- are often linked to poorly installed or maintained after-market equipment, such as lift kits, oversized tires, etc. This is not a safety issue, and there are no injuries involving Chrysler Group vehicles related to this allegation. Indeed, the name you've given to this condition has no basis in fact."

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Written and produced by Ken Miguel

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