Jeep 'death wobble' leaves drivers shaken

Dan Noyes Image
Sunday, February 16, 2014
Jeep "death wobble" leaves drivers shaken

SAN FRANCISCO, Calif. (KGO) -- Imagine driving down the highway and having your car suddenly start to shake violently. It's been happening to Jeep owners across the country. The ABC7 News I-Team has been looking into it and has the results of its investigation.

The shaking is so violent and shocking that many Jeep owners call it the "death wobble." The I-Team knows of no one who has died, but we've obtained public records that link the problem to some serious accidents.

It is a scary experience -- a violent shaking in the front end of the car that usually hits at highway speed when you make a turn or hit a bump.

Videos from YouTube show how frequently it happens to some Jeep owners. It's become so common it has a nickname -- the "death wobble" -- because it is so jarring.

"The whole font end of the vehicle shakes back and forth," Jeep owner Christopher O'Halloran said.

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

McNeill and O'Halloran are two Jeep owners from Oakland who say it's happening so often they've started documenting their wobble.

McNeill and O'Halloran aren't alone -- I've experienced the death wobble on my own 2007 Jeep Wrangler. It would hit right as I would get on the Golden Gate Bridge. There's the bump and when the shaking starts it's so intense it's hard to keep it in the narrow lane and you are worried about breaking with someone right behind you.

Just days ago, an ABC7 producer's 2006 Jeep began shaking after he hit a bump at about 50 mph on Highway 101 in San Francisco. The steering wheel vibrates violently. Beneath the car, the wheels wobble. It stops only when the driver slows down.

Chrysler owns Jeep and declined a request to go on camera, but Corporate Communications Chrysler Group LLC spokesperson Mike Michael Palese issued a statement saying, "...vehicles equipped with a solid axle can be susceptible to this condition."

When asked if she would have bought the Jeep if she had known about the problem, McNeill said, "No, absolutely not. I drive my son to school and this is my primary form of transportation for my son and I."

Jeep said in a statement, "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."

But no aftermarket modifications were made to the Jeeps belonging me, the producer, McNeill or O'Halloran. They all went into the shop just as they left the dealer show room.

Jeep says the problem can be fixed.

"It is routinely corrected with a change of tires or installation of a simple steering dampener," Palese said in the statement.

"They were willing to change the steering dampener on the vehicle because they expected this problem to occur," McNeill said.

However, just days ago the I-Team drove with McNeill when the death wobble hit again.

O'Halloran replaced the dampener and was hit by the wobble again. The dealer told him he had bad tires.

"There is no reason that my vehicle should be unstable when it's got 20,000 miles of wear on tires rated for 50,000 miles," O'Halloran said.

McNeill and O'Halloran say Jeep needs to do something about the problem.

The I-Team analyzed the complaint database of the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration. Since 1995, the I-Team found more than 600 complaints about Jeeps wobbling or vibrating -- mostly Wranglers since 1997. No deaths have been reported, but at least five people report being injured.

In South Carolina, a driver complained, "The vehicle with several passengers crashed upside down in a 10 foot storm water waterway."

In Lakewood, Calif., another driver "...had to veer off the road across several lanes of freeway traffic, almost causing an accident." The driver sprained her wrist.

Jeep denies that these injuries were related to the death wobble, stating, "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. "

The NHTSA would not go on camera either to talk about the death wobble, but stated in an email it is "aware of the condition and is reviewing consumer complaints as they are received. The agency will continue to monitor the issue and will take action to address the problem as necessary."

The 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."

"Because I can slow down my front end won't fall apart, but every time I do that I am risking causing a pile up on the highway," O'Halloran said.

"This is something that I purchased to drive at freeway speeds; there was no waiver or disclosure at the time associated with it that I should have to be concerned driving it at normal speed," McNeill said.

"I think it's extremely dangerous if it's not fixed," 4x4 And More owner Eric Forbes said.

Mechanics say the problem is real.

"I am actually surprised that there hasn't been more occurrences of people, you know, resulting in injury or fatality because of it getting rear ended or getting hit," Forbes said.

Forbes, a Scotts Valley mechanic, specializes in Jeeps.

"I cringe when I'm test driving a vehicle that I think might have a death wobble because I can feel it before it starts to do it," he said. "I've experienced it hundreds of times, even to this day, the heart, you know definitely pounds."

Forbes has seen the death wobble mostly on the Wrangler, but mechanics say they have seen it on other Jeep vehicles as well, including Grand Cherokee and Cherokee models. They all have one piece of metal in common -- it's called a track bar. It is a key part of the vehicle's steering mechanism.

Mechanics the I-Team spoke to, as well as off-road enthusiasts, suggest replacing the stock track bar that came with the vehicle. It can run anywhere from $200-$400, plus labor.

"The stock stuff is OK, it's just not great," Kevin Fell said.

Fell run's, a popular website for those who've experienced death wobble. He's experienced it himself and has had thousands of people reach out to him for help with their own. He's come up with his own modified track bar to fix the problem.

"If you upgrade to aftermarket products, which are thicker, beefier, stiffer, that sort of thing, then often times that will eliminate the problem completely," Fell said.

McNeill and O'Halloran say the dealership never mentioned the problem might be the track bar. They say they are frustrated that they continue to experience the death wobble and mechanics say they are not alone.

"With how many occurrences I have seen, and how much of an issue it's become, I think that Jeep for should be liable for at least some reimbursement costs," Forbes said.

Chrysler says its "vehicles meet or exceed every applicable government safety standard and have excellent safety records."

But some Jeep owners might disagree with that, the I-Team wants to hear from you. Call the tip line at 1-888-40-I-TEAM.

Written and produced by Ken Miguel