BOSTON (CBS) — James Squires has always loved Jeeps, until he hit a bump in the road, “and then the car just started shaking,” he said.
He took WBZ’s I-Team for a ride. “It kind of feels like with all the stress on the vehicle, that something could break,” he said. As soon as the vehicle hit a small bump in the road at 50 miles per hour, it happened. “You can see my hands on the wheel,” he said. “They’re shaking bad.” Oddly enough, the shaking stopped when the Jeep hit another small bump, or if he hit the brakes. But it wasn’t long before he hit yet another bump, causing the wheels to wobble again.
A spokesperson for Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, which owns Jeep, says there’s never a loss of control. But when the I-Team looked through the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration’s logs, there was a long history of similar complaints from Wrangler owners. In the last three years, the I-Team found 231 complaints with the term “wobble”. While many drivers refer to it by its nickname, “death wobble”, FCA is quick to point out there has never been a reported death. In a statement, FCA says it’s “…not a safety issue. FCA US strongly objects to any insinuation otherwise.”
Safety expert Sean Kane, who heads up Safety, Research, & Strategies, Inc., has studied the issue for decades. “Anytime you have a steering wheel violently shaking in a driver’s hands, that’s a safety problem,” he said. “Certainly you can see where it could lead to loss of control in a crash.”
FCA says the shaking is rooted in one of the very characteristics that Jeep owners love. It comes from the solid front axle, which allows wheels to safely navigate through boulders and rugged terrain. “The steering wheel system design associated with this condition affords the unique capability that is valued by our customers and the market,” says the company’s statement.
Jeep owners say the design leads to problems when they hit highway speeds. One complaint to NHTSA said it caused the driver “to swerve off the road…since then my daughter had been complaining about neck pains. Another driver wrote, “I feel the pain in back and neck.”
It’s now the subject of a federal safety investigation, with NHTSA looking into steering-related issues for a second time, along with a report of welding problems on frames. So far there hasn’t been a recall, but Jeep is installing shock absorbers called dampers in its newer models free of charge.
Even though James Squires’ Wrangler came with one already in place, he says the wobble still happened. His local dealer replaced it with a new, better damper, which some safety experts say is just a Band-Aid on a flaw that seems to make one of America’s favorite rugged rides just a little too rugged.