Serious safety concerns are being raised by owners of late-model Dodge Ram trucks — in complaints to government — over a problem automotive experts and consumers have dubbed the "death wobble."
"We hit a pothole in the road and the truck just started shaking violently," said Brantford, Ont.'s Dennis Warren, owner of a 2007 Dodge Ram 2500.
"We ended up on shoulder of the road — and that was during rush hour traffic in the morning."
Warren is among several owners from Canada and the U.S. who've reported they are scared to drive their vehicles — after experiencing violent, uncontrollable shaking in their trucks' steering system, triggered when their vehicles hit a bump in the road. However, Chrysler has concluded there is "no safety issue" related to this issue.
Federal investigations are underway in both Canada and the U.S. over Dodge Ram tie rod failures — an essential part of the steering system — which experts say may result from the damage caused by the severe shaking.
"Transport Canada's investigation regarding the failure of tie rod of Dodge Ram Trucks — models 2500 and 3500 — is active and ongoing," wrote department spokesperson Maryse Durette.
"The time it takes to investigate an issue and reach a conclusion varies considering a number of factors. The results of the investigation will be available once completed."
Warren said in four separate incidents, steering and suspension problems with his truck could have caused an accident.
Vehicle can't be controlled
"We've gotten lucky — that we haven't hit something or ended up off the road," said Warren. "You can't control the vehicle. The truck is literally bouncing off the road."
Warren and his wife, Jennifer, are so worried that they avoid taking their four-year-old son in the truck.
"It's nerve-racking," said Jennifer Warren. "I am a little sick to my stomach until we finally get to where we are going."
Since his first experience with the "wobble" in 2008, Warren said his truck's steering box has broken seven times.
"They put the last steering box in three weeks ago. It lasted three days."
He also said his tie rods failed this winter, causing his wheels to splay out in opposite directions, stopping his truck cold.
"I happened to be turning into a parking lot. That's another lucky thing. If it happened 10 seconds earlier, I was travelling down the highway. One tire went to the left, one went to the right," he said.
Numerous videos posted on YouTube by Dodge owners illustrate the shaking during the so-called "death wobble" is severe and difficult to stop.
An internal Chrysler service bulletin, obtained by CBC News, shows the company has been aware of this problem since 2006.
Chrysler suggests adjustments
"The customer may experience a self sustaining vibration (shimmy) felt in the front end of the vehicle after striking a bump or pothole," reads the bulletin.
It advises service technicians to check the vehicle's suspension and steering components and adjust the tire pressure.
However, experts and owners who have filed complaints say the more serious problem is the sustained front-end damage — possibly caused by the violent "wobble" — that plagues their vehicles afterward.
After $30,000 worth of repairs, most under warranty, Warren's truck no longer has the "death wobble," but continues to have front-end failures.
"They keep replacing the same parts and the same parts keep breaking," he said.
A recent engineer's inspection of the truck concluded the damage is so extensive the vehicle is "unserviceable."
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"Our concern is any unidentified damage that may have occurred to the internal box components from the repeated heavy vibration and the final tie rod failure," writes David Hoar of Motion Engineering, a New Brunswick design-engineering firm that does mechanical assessments of vehicles.
Hoar told CBC News he is aware of two other Dodge Ram trucks with similar problems. During his investigation of the Warren case, he found there are more than 200 steering boxes on back order at Chrysler dealerships — an indication, he says, of widespread breakdowns.
He said he believes the root of the problem is a manufacturing defect in the steering and/or suspension system.
"I reported this to Transport Canada, because, as an engineer, I have an obligation to report anything that is unsafe to the general public," Hoar said.
Automotive industry critic Phil Edmonston — author of the Lemon-Aid consumer guides — has reviewed the Warren file and other complaints about the so-called "death wobble" and its impact.
"People are calling it a death wobble because that is what it is," said Edmonston. "It can just lock up — or it can dis-attach itself. The vehicle can go out of control."
Dozens of complaints about this have been posted on the U.S. website safercar.gov.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration announced in April that it is doing a preliminary investigation of some 160,000 2008-11 Dodge Ram 2500 and 3500 models, for possible outer tie rod failures.
Recall possible: Edmonston
That type of investigation is often a precursor to a recall.
"I expect the proof that is there is going to lead to a recall campaign," said Edmonston. "And the customers, the owners of these vehicles, will probably have a fix coming down the line shortly."
Chrysler Canada declined a request by CBC News for an interview.
The company sent a statement, which reads: "The name [death wobble] given to this condition has no basis in fact. All manufactured vehicles equipped with a solid axle can be susceptible to this condition and, if experienced, it is routinely corrected. Indeed, this is not a safety issue, and there are no injuries involving Chrysler Group vehicles related to this allegation."
"All Chrysler Group vehicles meet or exceed every applicable government safety standard…the safety of our customers comes first."
"What we are seeing is denial, denial and denial," said Edmonston.
"In 40 some years as a consumer advocate in the automobile industry I have never seen a company so pig-headed — that they never wanted to admit a problem was obvious with their vehicles."
Chrysler refused to comment on the Warren case, because it is currently under review by an arbitrator with the Canadian Motor Vehicle Arbitration Plan (CAMVAP).
CAMVAP is a national program that rules on consumer complaints, supported by the automotive industry. Manufacturers can be ordered to buy back defective vehicles, if they've been driven less than 60,000 kilometres. It can also order repairs and compensation for consumers.
High claim rate
A review of CAMVAP statistics shows — of the Big Three carmakers in North America — 58 per cent of the claims in 2009 were about Chrysler vehicles, compared to 24 per cent for Ford and 18 per cent for General Motors.
Chrysler also had a higher buyback rate than the others — 46 per cent — as opposed to 14 per cent for Ford and 32 per cent for GM.
Warren filed his claim in June 2010, but a buyback is not possible in his case, because his vehicle mileage is over the limit.
In September, in a "final" award, CAMVAP ordered Chrysler to fix the Warren vehicle's "defect" and pay the couple $2,000 in compensation for past repairs.
"It is reasonable to conclude that absent a defect of assembly or materials, it is highly unlikely that there would have been repeated failures of the steering box assembly in this vehicle," wrote arbitrator Robert Nairn.
Chrysler has since disputed part of that ruling, saying modifying the frame, as ordered, would effectively undo the vehicle's safety certification.
"Chrysler Canada Inc. nor a Chrysler dealer will participate in de-certifying the Safety Certification of this vehicle," the company wrote.
"To fix their problem I think they need to spend a little less time fighting and a little more time fixing," said Warren.
"Take the thing — and figure out what is wrong with it. There are many thousands of these trucks on the road."
"It should have been fixed a long, long time ago," said Jennifer Warren. "I feel like we are being ignored and nobody is saying, 'Hey, this really is a problem.'"
Warren said at one point Chrysler offered him a discount to trade in the vehicle, but he and his wife don't want to put a new owner at risk.
"We've gotten lucky four times. Sooner or later your luck runs out."