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The 'Death Wobble' -- Be Safe Not Sorry!

eath Wobble is not to be confused with a front-end shimmy or a wheel balance problem. A Death Wobble (DW) is very common on vehicles with a solid front axle. It has earned its name, not from mechanics but by vehicle owners that have been frightened by the experience.

The DW usually starts at about 45-65 mph. The front wheels start to wobble left and right very rapidly. The steering wheel jerks left and right by several inches. The movement is so rapid it is difficult to hold onto the steering wheel. Loss of control seems imminent. At speeds over 60 mph, the front end feels like it is ready to break loose from the vehicle. Applying the brakes quickly as you would in a reflex action causes the DW to become more violent.

Death Wobble, underbody of a vehicle, Don Stec
A typical solid axle. Steering linkage will differ from brand to brand and year to year.

If you experience the DW I have found the safest method to regain control, is to hold the steering wheel as steadily as possible. Take your foot off the gas pedal and carefully apply light brake pressure. If the wobble increases, brake pressure is too high. As the vehicle slows and lighter brake pressure is reapplied the wobble should stop within a few seconds.

I have experienced the DW on a curve at about 65 mph. It was especially frightening since I was passing a logging truck. The wobble struck as I was side by side with the logging truck. I held steady with the steering wheel following the curve. I let off the gas pedal and lightly applied the brakes. The wobble increased and I let up on the brakes. I gently reapplied the brakes again, the vehicle slowed and the wobble stopped.

Once a DW is experienced it will return again until repairs are made to the vehicle. However, the DW may not occur again for days, weeks or months until conditions are ideal for it to return. Do not convince yourself it was a one-time occurrence because time has passed. A vehicle that had a DW still has the mechanical condition that caused it; it just needs the right road condition to activate it.

You must still return home or to a place for repair. These hints may help get you there safer and to help reduce the chance of the wobble returning until repairs can be made.

Check for tire and/or suspension failure
If there is no damage to the vehicle and you are determined the vehicle can be driven, start slowly.

Reduce speed
If the highway is smooth and straight drive slower but not so slow as to be a hazard on the road. If that is impossible or you are too afraid to drive, call a tow truck.

Observe the pavement condition
Watch especially the right side of the road because that is where most pavement irregularities are. Avoid potholes, speed bumps or irregular pavement if possible. They can make the wobble return.

As I said at the beginning of this article, the vehicles I am talking about have solid front axles. They are mostly pick-up trucks and SUV’s. The most common causes of the wobble are worn, loose or damaged steering and suspension parts. Next is irregular tire wear, out of balance tires or bent wheels. If the vehicle was repaired after a collision, we often see frame dimensions that were not restored and improper wheel alignment.

Modified vehicles (lifted higher) with oversize wheels and tires can exaggerate any inherent design weakness. Wheel alignment is often the cause of DW because stock specifications may not work on a modified vehicle.

There are a lot of wheel alignment shops but it is difficult to find technicians with experience on DW repair. Often the recommendation is to completely replace the entire front steering and suspension parts because corrective repair is difficult to analyze. Estimates in the $3000 range are not unusual for complete replacement.

If you tell the repair estimator you have a death wobble and the estimator does not know what that is, seek another opinion from someone at a shop that does know.

It is very common for owners to bring their vehicles to Coachmaster for a DW problem that is still there after they have spent hundreds of dollars trying to have it fixed elsewhere. Coachmaster has devised a system for testing the individual components and replacing only what is needed.

Don Stec is the owner of Coachmaster of Redding. Coachmaster is a full service collision repair shop also specializing in the repair of recreational vehicles, trailers and boats. The company works with all the major insurance companies and has a great reputation in the North State. Don Stec can be reached at 530-243-1310 or at the shop at 6851 Eastside Road in Redding.

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