Death wobble, sometimes called speed wobble, is a common problem that plagues the Wrangler community. This guide will detail what causes death wobble, and how to fix the problem.
What is Death Wobble?
Death wobble is a rapid oscillating in your steering components and results in your steering wheel moving very quickly from side to side. It has earned this name because it feels like your Wrangler is literally shaking itself apart and that letting go of the steering wheel can lead to a very bad day. When this occurs it becomes extremely difficult to control your Wrangler and the only way to get it to stop is by slowing down; sometimes it is necessary to come to a complete stop. This isn’t your standard, annoying vibration from unbalanced wheels. Death wobble is a distinctly harsher shaking force and very difficult to control.
Death wobble typically occurs at speeds above 45 mph and in most cases requires a trigger like hitting a bump or a pothole, but can also happen at speeds less than 45 mph. One of the common myths about death wobble is that it doesn’t happen to stock Jeeps, only ones that have been lifted. This is not true. It is actually possible to have death wobble in ANY vehicle with a solid front axle. However, it is true that if you have recently done any suspension upgrades (Ex: Lift kits) you may be more likely to experience death wobble.
There also isn’t a set year range or specific Jeep years that are more susceptible to the wobble over others. Every Jeep, even the older Willys, can find themselves plagued with this issue. If you’re faced with this unfortunate situation, here are some steps to look into and possibly help to solve the problem.
What Causes Wrangler Death Wobble?
Death wobble is caused by loose or damaged steering components; however, it can also be caused by incorrectly installing steering or suspension components. The first thing you should check is to make sure that nothing is bent or broken. Look at all of your front suspension components, and if you see anything that is damaged your best bet is to replace it. Below is a checklist of possible causes from most probable to least probable.
- Front Track Bar
- Ball Joints
- Drag Link/Tie Rod Ends
- Upper Control Arms
- Lower Control Arms
- Suspension Bushings
- Steering Stabilizer
- Steering Knuckles
Your front track bar, drag link, steering knuckles, ball joints, steering stabilizer, upper and lower control arms, and even bushings should be checked for damage or excessive wear. In addition to checking all corresponding hardware is properly tightened to the correct torque specifications, another important thing to check is your wheels, tires, and alignment. While unbalanced tires and wheels being out of alignment won’t usually cause death wobble, it can help trigger or even amplify it, so it’s a good thing to check just in case.
What to do when Death Wobble Happens?
The safest thing to do is pull over. Don’t let go of the steering wheel but maintain a light grip. The sudden, harsh steering wheel movements can cause damage to your fingers if you have a tight misplaced grip. Try to stay in the lane while slowing down and in most situations if you slow down enough the wobble will stop. Other times coming to a complete stop is necessary. If you try to pull over while you are wobbling at a high speed it can be very dangerous and you could lose control. Try to slow down evenly and safely without aggressive braking or forceful/quick movements of the steering wheel.
If you carry a set of tools with you, your next move should be to check for any loose suspension bolts. Even if they weren’t the cause, a case of the shakes can easily upset things. Sometimes tightening everything down can at least get you home for a proper garage diagnosis.
How to Fix Death Wobble?
Fixing the dreaded Jeep wobble can be something of a calculus problem. At its root, we’re dealing with a vibration issue. Fixing it requires finding which part of the Jeep suspension puzzle is the catalyst. The first step is to check your suspension components for wear or damage. After replacing any suspension piece, make sure you get your rig’s alignment checked. Something as simple as having a tire misaligned in camber or toe could cause enough vibration to trigger the wobble yet again.
One thing many people do is simply install a new steering stabilizer, but this is not a permanent fix. Jeep steering stabilizers in some situations can temporarily get rid of death wobble, therefore masking the serious problem. During the diagnosing of the issue, it sometimes helps to disconnect the stabilizer to properly pinpoint the problem. The best thing to do is inspect your steering components and find the part or parts that are damaged or worn out. Most likely it will be the front track bar, tie-rod ends, or the ball joints.
Diagnosing Jeep Track Bar Problems
The front track bar is designed to absorb a tremendous amount of force. As a result, the two anchoring points are extremely critical and should be the first stop in your investigation of the problem.
The “frame mount” bolt is known to be especially problematic. This high-grade bolt requires 125 ft./lbs. of tightening torque. If loose, the bar’s force could oblong/enlarges the frame mount’s hole, causing the bar to have excessive play.
2018 JL honorable mention: If you have one of these Jeeps, be mindful of the track bar to body weld. These are prone to failure, and Chrysler has issued a recall. If your JL falls under the recall conditions, see your dealership immediately. Should the track bar weld fail, you’ll lose steering control and be worse off than in any death wobble situation.
Another way to see if your track bar needs replacement requires grabbing one of your buddies. Have your friend hop into your Jeep and start it up, and then put it in neutral with the parking brake on or put it in park if you drive an automatic. Next, look underneath your Wrangler at the front axle. You should see a bar that connects the passenger side of your axle to the driver’s side of the frame, and it will have a curve to part of it (closer to the driver’s side). This is your track bar.
Look directly underneath the passenger side connection point of the track bar while your friend turns the steering wheel back and forth just under a quarter turn each way. The track bar should remain in place. If one connection is moving without the other then you have a bad track bar bushing. Similarly, if your track bar was moving around but your bolt was staying in place, then your bushing is worn out and should be replaced.
Related to the track bar is the potential for a relocation bracket. Some lifted Jeeps, in order to keep suspension geometry in order, require a track bar relocation bracket. If this bracket isn’t braced properly, it could act as a lever on your suspension, gradually pushing against mounting bolts and breaking things loose. Should the relocation bracket be bent from abuse or simply wear, replace it immediately.
Testing Your Jeep’s Ball Joints
If your track bar checks out, your next step is the ball joints. These important joints are covered with a soft rubber boot filled with lubricating grease. The joint is designed to articulate and provide soft and controlled steering. If the protective boot has ruptured or the grease has leaked out, the joint could be compromised, causing dangerously excessive movement vertically or horizontally. A quick visual inspection could provide an immediate assessment of the joint’s condition. In the case of the boot being intact and if you have a dial indicator handy, you can check vertical and horizontal movement that way.
Another test can be done by using a jack to lift one of your wheels off the ground while your friend watches a ball joint. Take a pry bar and place it in between the floor and your tire. Using the pry bar, push up on the tire a couple times. If your friend sees any slight movement between the ball joint and the steering knuckle then it is worn out and should be replaced. Allowable ball joint play is in the millimeters. If there’s obvious movement, the ball joints have failed. Have your friend watch the other ball joint for that wheel and do the test again to see if the second joint is worn out. After you finish testing that side, move to the other side and repeat the tests.
How to Check Your Jeep’s Tie-Rod Ends
Checking your tie-rod ends is quite simple and can be done in just a couple of minutes. Start by using a jack to lift one of your front wheels off the ground. Next, have your friend (who may have been helping you check your track bar) watch the tie rod end for the lifted wheel. Place your hands on the left and right side of the wheel and try to wiggle it from side to side. If your friend sees the tie-rod wiggle back and forth, but the tie-rod bar itself (sometimes referred to as a drag link as well) is not moving, then the tie-rod end is worn out. If the tie-rod is worn out or if the rubber boot on the tie-rod is damaged (or missing altogether) then the tie-rod should be replaced. Repeat this test on each wheel to check the other tie-rods.
Inspect Your Jeep’s Control Arms & Wheel Bearing
Control arms: You can perform a quick visual inspection of the upper and lower control arms to see if they are bent or have any cracks in them. You should also check the control arm bushings for gouged or missing rubber.
Wheel bearings: The wheel bearings on your Wrangler are tested in a manner much like your tie-rod ends. Begin by using a jack to lift one of your front wheels off the ground and place your hands on the top and bottom of the wheel. Try to wiggle the wheel from the top and bottom, if you feel movement, your wheel bearing is most likely worn out and should be replaced. Move to the other side and repeat this test.
After any of your steering components are replaced it is a good idea to bring your Wrangler in for a front wheel alignment.
Can Tires or Wheels Cause Death Wobble?
Yes, in some cases. Granted, an unbalanced wheel or an improperly worn tire being the cause of death wobble is less probable, but it’s certainly not impossible. Hop onto any of the off-roading forums and you’ll find a case of someone noticing missing wheel weights, getting their tires re-balanced, and their Jeep’s shakes disappearing. By far your cheapest option when diagnosing the source of your misfortune is double-checking the condition of your wheels and tires.
After every off-roading venture, be sure to clean off any caked mud, and make sure your air pressure is back up to where it should be. Uneven tire wear can also cause unnecessary vibrations, triggering the wobble. This comes back to alignment issues we’ve mentioned previously. If your tire lugs are chamfered or the inside/outside of your tire is more worn than the opposite side, you have uneven tire wear and you should have an alignment done.
The worst case scenario as far as wheels and tires are concerned is having a bent rim. Depending on how badly damaged the rim is, no amount of wheel balancing will help. The constant, improper rotation can rattle things loose, setting the stage for a catastrophic evening.
Can a Bad Alignment Cause Death Wobble?
Yes, 100% yes. As mentioned previously a bad alignment can, at the very least, exacerbate an existing issue. Worst case is a bad alignment is your issue. One of the reasons why the community sees lifted Wranglers as a more common victim of the wobble is because of how lifting the suspension effects caster. Factory caster for Wranglers should be 4.2 degrees positive. In other words, the traction pad of the tire is in front of the tire (when looking at the tire from the rim facing side). When you lift a Jeep you decrease the caster. Lower caster numbers result in more forward moving resistance. Not something anyone wants in any vehicle. More rolling resistance leads to a harder working suspension, more vibration, and a recipe for disaster.
Excessive toe-in can also be problematic. Toe-in is when the front tires are angled towards the vehicle’s center (from a bird’s eye view). Similar to an improper caster setting, excessive toe-in can increase rolling resistance leading to heavier wear on your tires and suspension components. Some Jeepers have even reported toeing out their front wheels helped stave off death wobble, but won’t eliminate the root cause if there are more gremlins at work.
Can I Fix My Jeep at Home?
An inexpensive and easy preventive solution is the replacement from factory bolts to a higher grade alternative. Bolt kits from Synergy, for example, provide high-grade alternatives to the factory hardware and allow you to tighten the components at a higher torque.
In addition, if you plan on upgrading your Jeep’s suspension, it is critical that you loosen the bolts for the front & rear track bars and all control arms, then shake the Jeep. This allows important suspension components to settle properly and prevent mounting points from binding. Once settled all bolts should be properly tightened to the torque recommendations. Marking the bolt and mounting point with a line using a white marker provides a quick visual indicator if the bolt has moved/loosened. It’s also recommended to have your Jeep properly aligned by a professional after any steering/suspension modification and as part of your routine maintenance.
Finally, it’s good practice to inspect all these mounting points as well as all joints/rubber protective boots for excessive wear or damage. Immediately replacing or addressing issues early on will help prevent future problems.
Unfortunately, there isn’t a set figure for what to budget for when the wobble comes knocking. Shop prices will vary by area as will stock versus aftermarket replacement parts. Below is a breakdown of cost for our top five recommended wobble fixes:
- Track Bar:YJs have it easier here. For stock height rigs, you’ll need about $60 to replace your track bar. TJs & JKs, however, will need to put aside $250-$400 (basic to adjustable units).
- Ball Joints:Depending on how heavy duty you want to go, you could get hit $900 for a replacement set of SkyJacker’s Dual Load Carrying joints. Stock replacements on the other handy are significantly cheaper at around $40-$60 for a pair. Beefier sets are closer to $200-$250 for a set of four.
- Drag Links & Tie Rods: Cost here will vary depending on how high you have your Jeep. Adjustable units are several hundred dollars, and complete steering linkage kits (such as Teraflex’s kit) are in the $1,500 range. Don’t fret though because you can replace the tie rod portions with stock units for $20-$50 per side.
- Control Arms: Similar to drag links and steering components, control arms can net a pretty penny depending on how durable or adjustable you need them to be. For example, a full set of front and rear stock replacements are around $300 whereas a fully adjustable set easily doubles that figure.
- Steering Stabilizers: Remember, never assume slapping on a steering stabilizer will fix death wobble. More often than not, the stabilizer is simply a band-aid that can be ripped off at any time. If you’re tight on funds, however, a steering stabilizer can stave off the issue long enough for you to fix the real source of the problem. Keep $60-$120 aside to replace/add a beefier steering stabilizer to your rig.
Keep in mind that these prices are just for the parts themselves. Also remember to put money aside for an alignment after replacing any front steering/suspension components.