NHTSA Wobbles to Congress on Shaky Jeep Issue

The YouTube videos say it all: a Jeep Wrangler vibrating so intensely, a bystander can see the front wheels plainly shimmy. Inside the vehicle, another Wrangler owner demonstrates the steering wheel shaking with such force that the driver has a death grip to keep control of the vehicle, but don’t worry, NHTSA told two U.S. Reps., it’s not a safety hazard.

Hapless Wrangler owners have dubbed it the “Jeep Death Wobble,” and some journalists who have reported on the phenomenon have been more than happy to give this snappy name some play. The problem caught the attention of Rep. Henry Waxman, ranking member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee and California Rep Anna Eshoo, who last week released a letter they wrote to Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne, urging the company to do more to educate consumers and dealers alike about the problem and its remedies:

“Chrysler should undertake an outreach campaign to its customers, such as a Customer Satisfaction Campaign, to notify Jeep owners of the risk of the “wobble” condition, also described as a “vibration” or “shimmy,” and the possible methods for repairing and preventing the problem. Such a notification could alert owners to the existence of Technical Service Bulletins (TSBs) that advise dealers how to diagnose and make repairs to address this issue, emphasize the degree to which aftermarket modifications might affect or exacerbate the wobble problem, and advise customers how to stop the wobble if they experience it while driving.”

Apparently the five Technical Service Bulletins that Chrysler already issued relating to the problem were not enough. And apparently, Waxman and Eshoo turned to Chrysler, because the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration had already turned them away.

In March the pair sent NHTSA a letter asking the agency about what it knew about this phenomenon through consumer complaints and Early Warning Reporting data and whether it planned to take any action. The agency told the Congressmen that in 2006 it had opened an Issues Evaluation on 1997-2006 Wranglers after receiving “several reports concerning steering wheel shaking or instability after striking a bump or rough, uneven road surface that fell into either the steering or suspension component reporting category.”

“There were no reported death or injury incidents in EWR for steering or suspension, and our analysis methods of the aggregate data did not identify the MY 2005-2010 Jeep Wranglers as outliers, or as vehicles with an increasing trend of aggregate data. A parallel review and follow-up interviews of consumer complaints revealed no actionable information. Consequently, no investigative action was initiated at that time.”

More recently, Chrysler reported to NHTSA three injury claims against Model Years 2005-2010. The agency itself had fielded 402 consumer complaints concerning the death wobble in Wranglers.

But, there are no known deaths attributed to the defect, so it’s not a death wobble, see? And, why make a manufacturer fix something that hasn’t killed anyone? It’s a matter of settled case law, according to one former NHTSA staff attorney who has written a paper outlining how the agency makes the decision to term something a safety defect. In NHTSA Safety Defect Investigations, Allan Kam explains how cases such as the seminal “Pitman Arms” decision set the standard for proving that a defect relates to motor vehicle safety according to the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act of 1966. The case concerned the pitman arms of 1959 and 1960 Cadillac, which could break from stress, resulting in a loss of steering control. GM conceded that the Pitman arms were breaking at a high rate, but argued that the vehicles were older, and nearly at the end of their service life, that there had been a handful of crashes and no injuries or deaths. Further, GM said, this wasn’t a safety problem because the failures occurred in low-speed parking situations.

“In that case, NHTSA contended that the failure of a critical safety system (steering) creates an unreasonable risk of accident occurrence,” Kam writes. “At trial, the Government showed that a large number of failures had occurred.”

The agency won the case on appeal. The Court found that, in fact, the pitman arms were breaking at an unreasonably high rate and that a loss of steering control was a safety-related defect. “Death Wobble” is a dramatic name and the videos show a vehicle that clearly does not operate normally, but if the driver can maintain control; and if there are no injuries and deaths, the agency’s case becomes harder to make:

“NHTSA does not believe this particular shimmy indicates the likelihood of a safety-related defect that would warrant a formal investigation,” NHTSA told the Congressmen.

Chrysler blamed after-market axles and gave WKGO-TV in San Francisco the standard, our-vehicles-meet-government-standards line.

NHTSA told WKGO-TV that the wobble was predictable and controllable – just hit the brakes. Owners countered that hitting the brakes might be unsafe while driving on the highway, and by the way, when they purchased the Jeep, they expected that it would not act as though it was about to come apart at 60 mph.

While the agency may have a tough row to hoe in making the case for a safety defect, why is it that drivers are expected in some instances – such as this one – to be the countermeasure to a defective design that certainly has safety implications – even if it hasn’t killed anyone – that we know of yet? These Jeep Wrangler Death Wobble videos show violent shaking that makes the vehicle challenging to control. And, in our view, they are as persuasive as the Jeep fuel spit back videos, in which the gas station and the Jeep owners’ shoes get a gasoline bath, courtesy of a defect in the filler neck inlet. Likewise, NHTSA declined to concede that gasoline spills were a safety issue (but Chrysler quietly extended the warranty on many of the models affected).

Watch “Death Wobble” owner videos: