Imagine you are driving your Jeep or heavy-duty truck down the highway when you hit a bump and suddenly the steering wheel starts shaking violently. The shaking is so bad you can’t stop it no matter how hard you try to steady the wheel and it only goes away once you are nearly stopped. This situation is known as “death wobble” and it has troubled drivers of mostly offroad and heavy-duty vehicles for decades. So, what is a death wobble and how can you stop it?
The term “death wobble” is not a technical term, but one made up to describe an occurrence when driving. While traveling straight at normal speeds and on flat roads, the vehicle has no issues. But if it hits a bump, an oscillation begins in the front wheels. The oscillation increases causing the front wheels to “wobble” violently back and forth. The wobbling motion is then transmitted to the steering wheel through the steering linkage. The forces are usually so great that the driver is physically unable to steady the steering wheel. Some drivers have come to accept the event as a normal part of driving their vehicle, while those who experience it for the first time are usually left shaken both literally and physically.
What Causes Death Wobble?
The simplest explanation for what causes death wobble is looseness in the front-end components. Here are a few common causes:
- Loose steering joints
- Tie rod ends worn
- Track bar bushings worn
- Worn ball joints
- Sway bar bushings worn
- Worn out wheel bearings
- Out of spec alignment
Depending on which part is worn out, it may only take one of them to induce death wobble. The more likely scenario though is that several parts are degraded allowing for a greater combined amount of looseness in the system. And as one part wears and creates more movement, it speeds up deterioration of connected parts.
There are reports of Jeep Wrangler death wobble stemming back for years, which are now joined by reports of Jeep Gladiator death wobble. While Jeeps are a large part of death wobble issues, there are also Ford truck death wobble reports (mainly in the Super Duty line) and even some in the Dodge Ram truck line. The main connecting theme to these vehicles is a solid front axle. While some drivers have reported death wobble with independent front suspension vehicles, it is uncommon.
Oftentimes, tire shimmy is misidentified as death wobble. A vibration that appears at one speed but goes away at another speed is more likely tire shimmy or an out of balance tire.
Most people peg it as Jeep death wobble though because of lifted aftermarket suspension parts, but stock suspensions are susceptible as well if worn. Larger tires, which cause more stress on suspension and steering components, can cause death wobble to worsen. Adding larger tires to a vehicle with no death wobble issues won’t cause an immediate change, but it can speed up the breakdown of components.
Is Death Wobble Dangerous?
Anything that affects your steering and interferes with your ability to control the vehicle is a dangerous condition. The greatest danger from death wobble comes when driving on slippery roads (rain, snow or ice) where reduced vehicle control can prevent an effective response in an emergency situation.
How to Stop Death Wobble
Once the front wheels start to shake violently back and forth, the only reliable way to stop it is to bring the vehicle to a halt. Do not slam on the brakes, just slow down the vehicle in a controlled manner. You may still have some steering control, but it is difficult to grip the wheel, so don’t expect to make any sharp turns before stopping. Once the vehicle is no longer in motion, the shaking will stop.
How to Fix Death Wobble
The best Jeep death wobble fix is to replace loose or worn suspension and steering components. You must take the entire front end into consideration as a unit with every part having an effect on the others. All pieces need inspected for wear and looseness while leaning towards replacement of any questionable pieces. It is unlikely that death wobble is caused by a single loose component and is far more likely brought about by the sum of multiple loose joints.
To inspect the steering components, have an assistant move the steering wheel back and forth quickly while the vehicle is flat on the ground. Observe the steering joints. You should see no delay in the movement from one part to the next connected part. Movement from the steering wheel should create movement at the front wheel nearly instantly. Any loose joints need replaced.
An alignment is also recommended whenever trying to fix death wobble. This ensures that all the front-end components are pointing the right direction and with the correct angles. Some suspension lift kits can affect the front axle caster, which you should check and correct if found out of spec. Sometimes vehicle owners will add a heavy-duty aftermarket steering stabilizer to remedy death wobble, but it is not a solution and may not stop the problem. You still need to address the underlying worn component issues.
If your Jeep or truck is affected by death wobble, you need to deal with the problem sooner than later. Death wobble is curable, so there is no reason to live with it.
Check out all the steering and suspension products available on NAPAonline or trust one of our 17,000 NAPA Auto Care locations for routine maintenance and repairs. To learn more about how to fix death wobble, chat with a knowledgeable expert at your local NAPA Auto Parts store.
Photo courtesy Flickr.
With an automotive writing career spanning over two decades, Brian has a passion for sharing the automotive lifestyle. An avid DIYer he can usually be found working on one of his many project cars. His current collection includes a 1969 Olds Delta 88 convertible, BMW E46 sedan, and a slant-6 powered 1975 Plymouth Duster.