Dodge Death Wobble: Causes and Cures
It’s a phenomenon that can rear its ugly head on any solid front axle vehicle, but perhaps no other automobile (other than Jeeps) experiences it more than second and third-generation Dodge Rams. It’s called death wobble and it can give even the most seasoned drivers a case of the heebie jeebies. While the verdict is still out on the exact cause of death wobble, most instances can be traced back to worn out or damaged steering and suspension components. This includes the track bar, steering stabilizer, tie rod, drag link and even ball joints. However, a front-end that’s out of alignment, loose fasteners, improperly balanced tires and even over-or-under-inflated tires can also contribute to this uncontrollable shaking of your steering wheel.
To ensure your ’94-’08 Ram never enters the equivalent of its steering death throes, keep close tabs on the vital components mentioned below.
Attention ALL Lifted Trucks
First and foremost, if your Ram is lifted or sporting a large wheel-and-tire package, your chances of experiencing death wobble are vastly increased. This is because larger tires are harder on items like track bars, tie rods, steering dampers and wheel bearings, causing them to wear out quicker. In addition, lift kits (and lowering kits) alter caster, which is usually overlooked when lift systems are installed.
Track Bar: The Common Culprit
As the link that locates the axle under the truck, the track bar connects to the axle at one end and the frame on the other. As such, it’s a key part of both the steering and suspension system—and is arguably the most important component under the front of a solid axle Dodge. Not surprisingly, much of a Dodge Rams’ death wobble issues can stem from the track bar. Be it from shot bushings, a loose bolt on either end or a failing mount (at the welds or mounting holes), the track bar can allow for the kind of play and oscillations that eventually lead to death wobble. In our opinion, if you’re lifting your ’94-’08 Ram, an adjustable track bar isn’t a suggestion, it’s a requirement.
Buy a Steering Box Stabilizer
Another common source of trouble occurs at the steering box. From the factory, a significant amount of give is present on ’94-‘08 trucks where the steering box mounts on the frame. Thanks to their ability to eliminate this flex, steering box stabilizers are a hot item in the aftermarket. On top of tying both frame rails together, most bolt-on steering box stabilizers add an extra bearing to the output side of the steering box sector shaft as well, which quells any play that exists in the steering box.
Inspect Your Tie Rod Ends (and Upgrade if Necessary)
With the tie rod assembly being the link between your steering knuckles, worn out tie rod ends can enable the kind of steering play and wandering that result in death wobble. A bent tie rod can do the same. Once again, lifted trucks with larger wheel and tire packages are going to be much harder on factory tie rods, so it’s wise to entertain the idea of upgrading to heavier duty aftermarket versions. Full disclosure though: Before you spend a dime buying parts to correct your death wobble issues, always inspect the tie rod ends. A healthy unit will allow for zero side-to-side or up-and-down movement, but will allow sufficient rotational movement.
Check the Drag Link
The drag link is the component that makes steering inputs from the steering box a reality at the steering knuckle. The drag link spans between the pitman arm and steering knuckle, but like many other front-end components it makes use of a joint at each end—a joint that can wear out. Similar to tie rod ends, there should never be any up and down movement in the drag link’s joints. For lifted trucks that see off-road use, a more robust drag link is a good idea to keep it from bending (Dodge Off Road’s heavy-duty steering kit is shown above, which comes with a thicker wall, 1026 DOM tubing tie rod and drag link).
Bad Ball Joints (i.e. Aiding and Abetting)
As third-gen and especially second-gen Dodge Rams continue to age, worn out parts are a part of life for the second-and-third-hand owners of these trucks. Believe it or not, even bad ball joints (upper and/or lower) can contribute to death wobble by allowing for involuntary wheel movement and transferring vibration directly into the truck’s chassis. Anytime you can tighten up the front-end (be it by replacing worn components or physically tightening a loose bolt), you’re reducing your chances of experiencing death wobble. Carli Suspension’s ball joints for ’03-’13 Rams are shown above, which make use of accessible grease zerk fittings and carry a lifetime warranty.
Failing Wheel Bearings Don’t Help the Situation
Wheel bearings that are on their way out can also kick-start a death wobble event. Side-to-side play is a telltale sign they’re in need of replacing. While the unit bearings (i.e. hub bearings) on ’94-newer Dodge Rams aren’t exactly cheap (or rebuild-able), these bolt-on assemblies have come down a lot in price over the years. If you haven’t noticed a trend in the last several paragraphs, it’s primarily neglect of the components on an aging front-end that spur most instances of death wobble.
Track Straight, Get a Proper Alignment
If you’ve replaced everything or are sure all the steering components in the front-end are in sound working order, have the truck professionally aligned. You would be amazed how easy it is for one boosted 4x4 launch, one sled pull or one off-road excursion to tweak the front-end out of alignment. A proper alignment will set both the truck’s toe-in and caster correctly. Owners of lifted trucks, make sure your shop of choice has experience doing alignments on lifted trucks, as defaulting to OEM settings will not suffice.
Improper Tire Pressure(s)
A commonly overlooked ingredient in death wobble is tire pressure. Under-inflation, over-inflation and drastically different pressures in tires can all contribute to a death wobble episode. Always run the manufacturer’s recommended tire pressure and also remember to check your pressure every once in a while.
Keep Them Rotated and Balanced
Let’s face it, the day you bought your tires was the last time they were run on a wheel balancing machine. As the tread on your tires wears down, their overall shape and weight is gradually altered. After a while, and even though you may not notice it in the cab, your tires slowly become further and further out of balance. A worn out set of unbalanced tires can easily spur a death wobble incident if the conditions are right. To guard against this, keep your tires rotated every 3,000 to 6,000 miles and, if you can swing it, have them re-balanced regularly too.