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Pulled over on the shoulder of a highway in New York, in the rain with fast moving traffic after just experiencing a horrible shaking and wobbling of our motorhome. Not the way we had hoped to celebrate the day on our 5th on the road anniversary.
Our drive that day had landed us in stop and go traffic in New Jersey for a couple hours. The traffic had finally started breaking loose, just as we crossed into New York. It was raining, and the highway had a banked and curved overpass with expansion joints. About two thirds across the overpass, we started hearing a whomp, whomp, whomp sound. It sounded like a flat tire. The sound was accompanied by a very unsettling wobbling sensation that seemed to be building in intensity.
I looked at my TPMS (Tire Pressure Monitoring System) to confirm that there was not an issue with any of my 10 tires. It was nice to know they were ok, but it didn’t change the fact that something was very wrong. I brought the RV to a stop as soon as the road shoulder was wide enough to fit me. It was a soft, grassy area just off the shoulder. So I had to be careful not to go too far off the roadway, especially in such wet conditions.
Once somewhat safely stopped on the shoulder, I put on a safety vest, and went outside. Safety cones were set out, and our hazard lights were on. It helped make us visible, and keep us safer while we assessed our next steps.
We needed a safer space for a better look
A quick look didn’t reveal anything major. So we looked on our phones for the closest place we could exit the highway. We wanted a safer place to park the RV and have a closer look. Fortunately, Google maps satellite view revealed that there was an exit less than a mile away, and that just off that exit was a shopping mall with a large parking lot that we could comfortably navigate with our 60’ rig.
Once back in motion, we were relieved to see that the RV was no longer making the same sound or movements. Though that was great news, we still wanted to stop and have a closer look. We were excited to see that the parking lot we had chosen ended up being completely empty, which made it easy to navigate, and do some figure eight turns to have a good look at how the motorhome and Jeep were responding.
Good news and bad news
The good news was that we didn’t find anything wrong. But, the bad news was… we didn’t find anything wrong. It was not comforting to get back on the highway after such an unsettling situation, without knowing what caused it. We still had another 200 miles and over three hours of driving to finish that evening.
I had some initial thoughts about what might have caused it. But as it turned out, I wouldn’t discover the real cause until later that night.
When I stopped at our planned Walmart for the night, things started to make sense. While trying to disconnect the Jeep, I discovered that the battery was dead. I was able to start it with the help of our NOCO GB150 jumpstarter. But as soon as I discovered the dead battery, a mental lightbulb immediately turned on for me. The problem was not with the motorhome. It was the Jeep!
We had experienced the dreaded ‘Death Wobble
What is the Jeep death wobble?
Some years and models of Jeeps have been reported to experience the death wobble. In certain situations, the suspension and steering steering can get upset, causing the vehicle to start weaving side to side. This weaving motion can become quite violent, even effecting the towing vehicle. From what we have read, it is most likely to occur when you hit a large bump while traveling about 50 mph.
The death wobble name sounds very scary. But now having experienced it, and knowing how to stop it, I am not as concerned. To our knowledge, nobody has actually ever died from the death wobble. But it can definitely be scary the first time you experience it. And it is definitely something we want to avoid happening again.
We learned of the death wobble in our initial research before we bought our Jeep. However, our research had also found that there is an aftermarket part installation that can prevent, or at least significantly reduce the likelihood of it occurring. So we were not at all deterred from buying our Jeep ‘Blaze’ in October 2017.
How we set up our Jeep to avoid the death wobble
We bought our Jeep while staying in Portland Oregon. But we were headed from there to Colorado. So we researched to find a dealership in Colorado that was familiar with the aftermarket part and installation. We towed the Jeep from Portland, Oregon to Denver Colorado without incident. So it isn’t like the car is bound to have a problem without the install. That said, we were definitely looking forward to installing the extra part to reduce the likelihood of it ever happening.
The installation took quite a few hours, even at the experienced shop. Some dealerships might need the Jeep for a couple days. The part and installation cost about $500 to install. Personally, I believe that Jeep should have covered this expense. The original owners manual says it can be towed without it, but the updated version online says it needs the aftermarket install. We have heard that some people have been able to convince Jeep that it should be covered. We weren’t able to, so we paid out of our pocket for the install. At the end of the day, we just wanted to be safe.
Installing this also adds extra time and steps to preparing your Jeep to tow. But only about 1-2 minutes. It is important to note that installing this system basically keeps the electronic steering active while towing. This also means that without an external charging source, it can drain your Jeep’s battery in as little as 3 hours.
How did we offset the extra power drain?
Part of the reason we chose our Roadmaster Invisibrake braking system is because it charges the battery when in use. And our experience is that the charging ability of the Invisibrake was adequate in most situations. As proof of that, we towed our Jeep over 20,000 miles over the course of 20 months without incident. At the end of every drive, including some very long days, our battery still seemed fine.
Why did the death wobble still happen?
Even though we thought we had everything covered, it did still happen. Why? Basically, it was the perfect storm. All of the below factors came into play at the same time.
1. The battery had died
With a dead battery, the aftermarket system we installed to prevent the death wobble could not operate. Our Jeeps battery was now, nearly 5 years old. And this battery gets a workout with us regularly straining the battery during towing. Also, we use the auto-stop/start feature on our Jeep to keep our gas mileage high. This feature stops the engine when you stop at a stop light, then restarts when you lift off pressure from the brake pedal. Thereby doing a lot more engine starts.
2. The driving conditions contributed
With a tired battery, it was not holding a charge well anymore. Plus, we had been driving in conditions that are extra hard on the battery. We had been in stop and go traffic for hours. The braking system in the Jeep operates by using a small air compressor to pump up the pressure to activate the brakes. This compressor runs off of battery power. With so much stop and go traffic, it was working overtime. Long steady highway drives by comparison, use far less battery power.
3. The specific road condition that started the death wobble
We were on a curved and banked overpass with expansion joints. Our vehicle was traveling at the 50mph range most prone to setting it off. Hitting a series of off camber joints at just the right angle and just the right speed, was the losing combination.
How can we prevent it from happening again?
First we needed to replace our tired old battery. As mentioned above, after 5 years of heavier use it was probably overdue anyway. Second, we are looking into a way to provide more charging power to the battery while towing.
The Roadmaster Invisibrake does charge the battery. But, our Jeep puts an abnormally large draw on the battery with the anti-wobble equipment installed. So we will ask the folks at Roadmasterinc about ways to supplement the charging. We are confident that with those two updates, we will go many more years without any death wobbles. (Update August 2019, we visited Roadmasterinc while near their headquarters. They installed additional charging capacity, and inspected, and tuned up our towing equipment. Check out our separate blog post on the updates by clicking this link.
We still love our Jeep, and are very happy with our decision to buy it. It drives really great on AND off road. Our Jeep still meets our needs perfectly. It might not be the perfect vehicle for everyone, but we feel it is for us.
We hope you found this post and related video helpful. RV and vehicle breakdowns are some of the most stressful parts of Living The RV Life. When we had our first major breakdowns a few years ago, we created a safety checklist. Click here to download our checklist for free.
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Have you experienced the death wobble? Any other breakdowns and lessons to share. Please leave a comment below. We would love to hear from you.
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