NHTSA requests more time to investigate 'death wobble'

(iteam jeep wobble)
April 2, 2012 12:00:00 AM PDT
Congress is waiting for answers from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) about a story the ABC7 News I-Team first broke about a month ago. Because of our reporting, Congress is asking NHTSA some tough questions. How long has it known about the problem? What, if anything, is being done to fix it?

"If I were driving one of these cars, I'd be terrified," Congresswoman Anna Eshoo, D-Palo Alto, said in response to what Jeep owners have nicknamed the "death wobble." It's an uncontrollable and violent shaking in the front of certain Jeep models when it hits a bump at highway speeds.

I've experienced it myself and so has my producer, and we are not alone. The I-Team analyzed NHTSA's complaint database, and since 1995 we found more than 600 complaints about Jeeps wobbling or vibrating -- mostly Wranglers made after 1997.

After our story first ran in late February, we received calls and email from around the world from other Jeep owners who've experienced it as well.

"I lost control of the wheel and the vehicle on I-5 at freeway speed and spun out into a dust ball into the center divider," Jeep owner David Fairbrother said.

Chrysler, which owns Jeep, denies that a problem exists. "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," Michael Palese with corporate communications for Chrysler Group LLC said.

NHTSA told us it "?is aware of the condition and is reviewing consumer complaints as they are received." Jose Ucles of NHTSA added that, "...the problem is generally intermittent and predictable..." and that "?the vibrations can be mitigated by applying the brakes."

"It was your story that really gave the jumpstart to this," Eshoo said.

Eshoo sits on the House Committee on Energy and Commerce that oversees consumer safety. She wasn't happy with NHTSA's response to our story. She sent a letter to the agency demanding answers about the severity and frequency of the problem.

"Now I want direct answers," she said.

NHTSA was supposed to provide those answers today, but informed Eshoo Monday afternoon that it needs more time to pull together all the records. It will now deliver its response next Wednesday.

"This is to make a determination about how large this problem is, how it can be addressed, what threat does it pose to those that own these automobiles, and what responsibility both the manufacturer and the federal agency that in charge of all of these things, what they are going to do about it," Eshoo said.

"It's a serious issue, and it certainly needs investigation by the Department of Transportation," Center for Auto Safety executive director Clarence M. Ditlow said when asked what concerns him most about the death wobble.

The Center for Auto Safety is a prominent non-profit watchdog group that's been involved in major auto recalls. Ditlow spoke to us from Washington, D.C.

"The name of this defect, the death wobble, is something more than a mere irritation while you are driving," he said. "It's a problem that can lead to a crash, death and injury."

The I-Team's review of the NHTSA complaint database did not find any deaths, but did find that five people reported being injured as a result of the shaking.

But Chrysler argues, "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," according to Palese.

"This is a public safety issue," Eshoo said.

Ditlow says it's clear there is a problem, and that there are a number of databases that are not open to the public that may shed light on the issue. He says Eshoo's letter opens that door.

"They should do what the representatives have requested, look into these databases," Ditlow said. "They should certainly initiate a defect investigation and if there are reports of deaths and injuries uncovered during that investigation, there should be an immediate recall."

We will keep you posted on what happens next.

If you've experienced the death wobble or have a tip for our next investigation, we want to hear from you.Send us an e-mail here or call 1-888-40-I-TEAM.

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