Jeep Wrangler drivers report ‘death wobble’ on highways

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November 2018 – Detroit Free Press – It’s an issue that Jeepophiles call the death wobble, and it’s something that has prompted quite a bit of online diagnosis. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has started looking into some recent complaints about the issue.

Death wobble is a term that sounds dramatic, but it is not known to have led to any deaths. A spokesman for Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, which owns the Jeep brand, references the term “steering system vibration” when answering queries about it.

The issue arises after a vehicle hits a bump at highway speeds and then the steering wheel begins to shake, sometimes “violently.” Online videos claiming to demonstrate the issue show the wheels of some older or modified Jeeps moving back and forth rapidly after driving over a board or similar obstruction.

The phenomenon prompted concern from lawmakers in years past, but it has begun popping up again recently in a number of consumer complaints on the NHTSA website about the redesigned 2018 Jeep Wrangler JL.

Violent shaking
A sort of typical description — unverified as such complaints to NHTSA are — came from a driver in Farmington Hills at the end of October who said he experienced the wobble on I-696 during heavy rush hour traffic:

“Vehicles tires begin to shake violently at speeds in the 70-75 mph range on the highway. Condition occurs after hitting a small bump on the highway. The condition becomes so violent, I have to slow the vehicle from 70+ mph to about 40 mph to stop the shaking. …”

A Fiat Chrysler Automobiles spokesman said the issue is not a safety problem and can happen with any vehicle that has a solid front axle (rather than an independent front suspension), such as the Wrangler. Solid front axle vehicles are usually considered more capable in extreme off-road conditions, which is one of the Wrangler’s big selling points.

“Steering system vibration is not a widespread condition, nor is it a safety issue,” according to an email from a company spokesman.

On Friday, eight complaints on the NHTSA website listed the words “death wobble” with 2018 Jeep Wrangler, but a search of “steering” and 2018 Jeep Wrangler generated more than 200 complaints. The vast majority describe issues such as overly stiff or drifting steering, but some also describe a violent shaking after hitting a bump or shift in pavement type at highway speeds, just like the death wobble. A number of those who have filed complaints said the shaking stopped only after the vehicle slowed down.

The issue appears primarily focused on Jeep Wranglers, but a few complaints about the wobble name the 2018 Ford F-250 as well. In response to a request last Monday for comment, a Ford spokeswoman said she would look into the issue but did not provide a comment.

Federal examination
NHTSA said it is aware of the issue, citing 11 complaints in the last month, and is checking into it. The agency did not say whether vehicles that experience such steering system vibrations are safe. If the number of new complaints does not grow significantly, it would represent a fraction of the Wranglers on the road, with FCA reporting 204,269 Wranglers sold this year through October.

FCA Spokesman said it is FCA’s understanding that “NHTSA has looked at this over the years and determined it was not a safety issue.” He indicated there is no connection between the vibration complaints and a recall of 18,000 2018 and 2019 Wrangler JLs for problem welds.

Reports of the wobble in 2012 prompted letters from U.S. Rep. Anna Eshoo and then-U.S. Rep. Henry Waxman, both California Democrats, to the late FCA CEO Sergio Marchionne as well as NHTSA officials raising concerns about the issue.

In March of that year, San Francisco’s KGO-TV (Channel 7) posted a story saying it had found more than 600 complaints to NHTSA about Jeeps wobbling or vibrating since 1995, listing no deaths but five injuries.

NHTSA sent a letter to Eshoo in April of that year, describing the issue as a front suspension shimmy. The agency, according to a copy of the letter posted at the Center for Auto Safety website, said it found 402 relevant complaints out of the 542,134 2005-10 Wranglers and two possibly relevant crashes, “one of which alleged nonfatal injuries.”

“… The complaint narratives indicate that, while the condition is disconcerting to drivers, it does not result in loss of control such as the vehicle moving out of its travel lane,” the agency said.

The current batch of complaints does not list any deaths or injuries.

The email from FCA said that “any manufacturer vehicle equipped with a solid axle can experience steering system vibration and, if experienced, it is routinely corrected.”

Most incidents are linked to vehicle modifications, such as poorly installed lift kits or oversized tires, damaged or worn steering system components or incorrect tire pressure or wheel balance, according to the email.

But in checking the complaints, many describe recently purchased vehicles with no modifications.


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