If you own a pickup or SUV with a solid front axle suspension, you might already know about “Death Wobble.” While death wobble can strike any vehicle with a solid front axle, it’s often discussed as a Dodge Ram truck issue…and we’d like to fix that. We’d also like to explain what death wobble is, talk about how to go about curing it, and discuss the root causes so you can make sure you never experience death wobble for yourself.
Here’s everything you need to know about death wobble.
What is “Death Wobble,” Exactly?
If your vehicle’s front wheels begin to violently shake or wobble, and will not stop shaking or wobble until you bring your vehicle to a stop, that’s called “death wobble.” Death wobble often begins while you’re driving at highway speeds, and that makes it all the more notorious…if it only happened while you were driving at low speeds, it would probably be called something a little less sinister.
Most drivers report incredible shaking in the steering wheel, an almost total loss of control, and very often a very bumpy ride. Vehicles often begin to wobble after hitting a bump, cruising around a sharp turn, or after crossing an expansion joint. When death wobble begins, your truck will shake so badly that the ONLY way to get back control is to slow down or pull over. While most people who experience death wobble live to tell the tale, it’s not something to be taken lightly.
Here is a video showing a relatively mild case of death wobble in a Ford F-250:
This was “relatively mild” because the driver managed to recover from the problem without coming to a complete stop.
Sometimes, death wobble is incorrectly identified. The following are not symptoms of death wobble:
- A vibration/shimmy that only occurs while braking.
- A vibration/shimmy that only occurs at a specific speed and goes away if you slow down or speed up.
- A vibration/shimmy or popping noise when turning only.
- A vibration/shimmy after installing an after-market lift kit or larger tires
- A vibration/shimmy only when it is warm or cold out
- A grinding noise with a slight vibration/shimmy
- Any noise from the front end, followed by a slight vibration/shimmy when off-roading
Death wobble is neither subtle or mild. If you didn’t think much of it when it happened, it’s probably not death wobble.
What Causes Death Wobble? Is It An Issue With the Dodge/Ram Product?
In our opinion, death wobble has been unfairly associated with Dodge and Ram vehicles. While it is absolutely true that many Dodge and Ram truck owners have experienced death wobble, the issue effects every vehicle with a solid front axle. From an old Land Rover to a new heavy-duty truck, experiencing death wobble is always a possibility.
Don’t believe us? Go ahead and do a quick Google search. You will find that Ford Super Duty trucks, Chevy/GM heavy duty trucks, old Ford Broncos and Land Rovers, vehicles with custom solid axle swaps, etc. can all experience the problem. As we’ve said above, ANY vehicle with a solid axle can experience death wobble.
The problem, fundamentally, is that front wheels on a solid axle vehicle move together. With an independent front suspension, a vibration on the right front wheel will not be instantaneously transmitted to the left front wheel. What’s more, there’s very little possibility that a “positive feedback loop” can occur in a vehicle with an independent suspension setup.
Yet a vehicle with a solid axle can begin to wobble violently when:
- There’s a problem with the suspension (either the geometry or the components – more on that below).
- The front axle is disturbed suddenly and abruptly, causing one wheel to begin to wobble.
- The wheels on each side of the axle enter a positive feedback loop, where the wobble on the right side causes wobble on the left side, which causes more wobble on the right side, which cause MORE wobble on the left, etc.
The good news is that death wobble is easily cured with the right diagnostic process.
Fixes Specifically for Older Dodge and Ram Trucks
If you own a Dodge truck built before 2009, you may have the option to swap out your vehicle’s entire steering linkage to a newer style. Beginning in mid-2008, Dodge changed the design of the front suspension, connecting the tie rod to both steering knuckles instead of just to one knuckle and the drag bar (which, in older designs, is the only point of contact with the passenger-side steering knuckle). This new setup is more stable (and also a little beefier) than the old one.
If you’re rolling in a newer Dodge or Ram truck,you vehicle has the newer suspension geometry, so there are no specific fixes for your vehicle. Just run thru the list of potential problems above.
Curing Death Wobble
Often times, fixing death wobble requires a simple repair. If your vehicle has a problem, the first step is to inspect all of your front suspension and steering components for play and condition. If you’ve got a bent panhard rod/track bar, a steering stabilizer that’s officially worn out, or some over-taxed bushings that have loosened up, you’ve likely found the cause of your problem. You’re looking for any signs of looseness or “play” in the front suspension.
If you’re not intimately familiar with your vehicle’s front suspension, it’s best to take it to a trusted shop or mechanic for an inspection. This isn’t to say that you can’t repair the issues yourself (most people find working on their vehicle’s suspension system to be relatively simple), but it never hurts to get a second set of eyes to look over your vehicle.
Here’s a long list of components that can all contribute to – or be the root cause of – death wobble:
Tie Rods – Worn or older tie rods can cause the whole truck to wobble. The bushing ends wear out and cause excessive play. Tie rods tend to wear out after 60-80k miles, more if you off-road often.
Ball Joints – Like tie rods, worn or older ball joints can develop play in them. The upper ball joints will usually get loose first, followed by the lower joints.
Track Bar – Also known as the Panhard Bar, the track bar is a key component when it comes to diagnosing death wobble. Quite often, this bar and bolts can become elongated, which gives it just enogh play to cause problems.
Steering Gear Box – This box can also be the cause of the problem. If it has a crack in it, has become worn or otherwise isn’t up to standard, it needs to be replaced.
Vehicle Alignment – A poor alignment probably isn’t going to lead to death wobble all by itself, but if you combine a bad alignment with a little bit of play somewhere you can have a problem.
Tires – Many owners have reported problems with worn out tires and/or larger tires. For most lifted and off-road drivers, the larger tires can cause the system to become unbalanced which leads to the wobble. Remember that over-sized tires can wobble left-right if there is flex in the sidewall.
Rims – Sometimes a large dent or severely misshapen tire rim can cause the problem. This item is part of the geometry of the entire system and if it is rotating at an improper angle, it will cause vibration. Even just the loss of a balance weight can cause wobble at some speeds.
Lift Kits – In terms of death wobble, your vehicle’s suspension system is designed with factory components in mind…factory wheels and tires, factory angles on ball joints and other components, etc. Some lift kits (not all) do a very poor job of preserving factory angles, which can lead to death wobble. Likewise, dramatically bigger wheels and tires can accelerate the wear of bushings, push the steering stabilizer past design limits, etc. If you’ve got a lift kit and you’ve got death wobble, you might want to talk to the lift kit manufacturer about your problem.
Steering Stabilizer – Speaking of stabilizers, a lot of people suggest that you can “fix” your vehicle’s death wobble problems by investing in a beefy steering stabilizer. This is a half-truth. While a heavy-duty steering stabilizer can reduce the odds of death wobble occurring, the root cause of death wobble is almost always a problem somewhere else. If your vehicle’s front suspension was functioning as designed, it wouldn’t need a stabilizer (as a matter of fact, stabilizers are a recent advent…most vehicles made before the mid-70′s don’t have them). So don’t just buy a new stabilizer and call it good…that’s a band-aid fix at best.
Preventing Death Wobble In the First Place
If you’ve read this far, you’re probably wondering if there are some things you can do to keep this from happening. These are some general guidelines for preventing problems:
- Maintain your tires. Make sure they have the proper amount of pressure, that they’re wearing correctly, they don’t have any bulges, etc.
- Check your alignment from time to time. You can do it yourself by finding a flat piece of road and seeing if your truck steers one way or another.
- Periodically inspect your suspension for play or looseness.
- If you install a lift kit, a large after-market set of wheels and tires, or any other components that alter your vehicle’s suspension geometry, consider investing in heavy-duty suspension components to match. After all, no factory suspension is designed to accommodate a set of 37″ tires riding on heavy after-market rims.
Finally, if you find yourself pushing your vehicle exceptionally hard – jumping sand dunes, heavy-duty off-roading, racing, etc. – you must make a point to inspect your suspension on a regular basis. Even a small bend in a panhard rod is all it takes to cause death wobble.
Summing up, death wobble is mostly about wear and tear. While all vehicle manufacturers could do a better job of “beefing up” the factory suspension systems, the simple fact is that death wobble is easily prevented with periodic inspection and maintenance.