Video: CBS 5 Investigates Harley motorcycles known for “death wobble”

The last thing a rider wants to do on a motorcycle is lose control, but that’s what some Harley-Davidson riders say happened to them.

To riders such as Vince Herre, the bikes are a status symbol. “I like it just because it’s Harley-Davidson,” Herre said.

Other riders, such as Cliff Anderson, said there’s a certain amount of homegrown pride.

“It’s an iconic piece of America,” he says.

Riders such as Blake Tomlinson said they think riding a Harley-Davidson is a way of life.

“To drive one is the ultimate sense of freedom,” Tomlinson said.

To Jerry Costa, it was only a matter of time before he owned one.

“I had Triumphs, a Suzuki, Hondas and Yamahas. I had all of them before I ever had a Harley,” said Costa.

The Peoria biker has been riding for 40 years.

“This is my fifth Harley,” Costa said.

But no amount of road experience could have prepared Costa for what happened in October along a scenic highway just south of Prescott.

“I wasn’t doing anything out of the ordinary. I wasn’t doing anything I hadn’t done a thousand times before. I had been on that road a couple hundred times,” Costa said.

Costa said his speed was about 25-30 mph when, “The whole bike started shaking. I had no idea why the bike was vibrating like that, and it wasn’t a little vibrating. I never felt anything like that in my life.”

“I got this thought in my head I’m going over the ravine, and I don’t want to go down,” Costa said.

Costa did go down and was flown to a Phoenix hospital, where he coded and then slipped into a coma. Five days later, he awoke with a quadruple compound leg fracture, eight broken ribs and a punctured lung.

His massive Harley-Davidson Road King was totaled.

Costa blames faulty equipment for the accident, but Harley blames him.

“They say it’s operator error,” Costa said.

Costa is not alone.

A CBS 5 Investigation found similar incidents across the U.S. The possible equipment malfunction Costa describes has become known as the Harley-Davidson Wobble, or “Death Wobble.”

A camera mounted on a Georgia state trooper’s police-issued Harley shows Officer Richard Barber traveling 90 mph along an interstate. His 2007 Harley Electra Glide begins to shimmy and wobble. Eventually, Barber is able to stop the bike safely.

But a Raleigh, N.C., police officer was not so lucky. In 2002, 30-year-old Charles Paul was thrown from his Harley Electra Glide after it began to wobble. He died, and his family later settled a wrongful death suit with Harley-Davidson in 2008.

Harley’s have been widely used by law enforcement. But the California Highway Patrol decided not to put their troopers on Harley’s after testing the bike by comparing it to BMW bikes. A 2006 test track video shows the Harley side-by-side with the BMW. In the video, you can see the Harley wobbles when heading into and out of turns. The CHP report also says the bike wobbled on the straightaways.

Court cases against the company have centered on these bikes: the Road King, Ultra Classic, the Electra Glide and FLH series. The suits focus on their patented design for keeping the engine mounted to the frame of the bike. Critics argue the system is susceptible to a side-to-side motion, causing a wobble.

Harley-Davidson does acknowledge that its bikes are susceptible to a weave or wobble — depending on the bike’s speed. But they said that this does not cause accidents, and that weave or wobble happens to other bike manufacturers, regardless if it is a Harley or not. Harley also said the wobble problem is worsened when riders add on certain parts and suggests people follow the owner’s manual.

Jerry Costa said wobble is what happened to his bike, and it haunts him during his long days in physical therapy, where he learns how to do the simple task of moving his ankle again.

Costa can’t sue Harley-Davidson because he’s already settled with insurance, but he said he doesn’t want a payout.

“That’s not what I’m after. I want people to know about this. I don’t want more people falling off these bikes,” Costa said.

 

42 Comments on Video: CBS 5 Investigates Harley motorcycles known for “death wobble”

  1. Jeff Ottney // April 6, 2016 at 5:45 am //

    My 98 softtail custom will get the wobble when I’m doing 90mph

  2. I have a 2003 Fatboy I bought new and mine has done this wobble at around 30 mph. it has never done it at high speeds. It’s a front end wobble for me. I thought it was something to do with the tire. (Avon) I have been riding for 40 years. Never seen this before on a motorcycle. I have it professorially cleaned a few times a year. And it was noticed by the cleaning guy too. He called it a death Wobble.

  3. my 96 flhtci used to wobble a little at high speeds but i used to throw it around a lot grounding the boards and anything else too for the size of the bike it handled ok i still have it too along with other bikes its not a sports bike which are made to handel norm its down to tyres presure load etc

  4. honda recalled the pan european too if i remember for wobble at high speed and some bmw models the same

  5. mark lang // April 6, 2016 at 6:26 pm //

    I am very sorry for the people injured and killed.
    Experienced and performance oriented riders know that, though they sound great, Harley’s have inherent handling problems and severe performance limitations designed into the machine. We choose to ride other bikes, or ride our Harleys slowly and carefully.

  6. mark lang // April 6, 2016 at 6:27 pm //

    very sorry for those injured/killed

  7. Ratchet // April 6, 2016 at 6:59 pm //

    I have been riding for years, have experienced the speed wobble only a couple of times, turned out to be the spokes hub. After so many miles and tightening the spokes, the hub will wear this wear will cause the rim to develop a warp and in turn the wobble. Another thing is many of the mags uses sticky tape type of wheel weights, these weights can come off causing the wobble at high rates of speed. before every trip I go over my and my wife’s bike just to ensure the safety. No matter what type of bike you have, if you do not maintain the drive train you will have problems.

  8. I was riding with a group when we all came went into a turn lane at a pretty good clip. A buddy’s bike went into a bad wobble but he managed to pull it out. When we stopped a few miles down the road we looked his bike over and found one thing. He rode a Soft Tail Harley. One of the shocks was set firm and the other was set soft. We guessed that when he changed lanes the uneven absorption of shocks and turn took the bike into the wobble. We took the bike to his shop, adjuster the shocks the same. He hasn’t experienced the wobble since.

  9. I have had speed wobbleon two ddifferent Harleysvillea ssoft tail and a electro glide been lucky so far it dose happen

  10. Dean Merkel // April 7, 2016 at 12:33 am //

    I have a 2014 street glide special that does this shit at aprox 15 to 35 mph . Comes out of the blue but doesn’t do it all the time. Ues,scares the f out of me when it happens.
    But I still ride my Harley. Mine is the only one of all I ride with that does it
    Just doesn’t add up to me.

  11. Anonymous // April 7, 2016 at 12:55 am //

    My buddies 2000 electroglides swing arm broke by shock mont harley would not acnolage there is a problem with swing arms

  12. I have a 99 Rk with. 187,000 miles and felt the wobble at about 70 mph. Put a new motor last year. Before bike has approx.192,000 & still have a slight wobble at 70. So it’s low & slow for me. Had the HD shop check it 4 different times.

  13. Dennis B // April 7, 2016 at 3:50 am //

    just more proof harleys bare overpriced junk. im surprised they didn’t try to blame the japaneese shocks they use,

  14. Had low speed wobble on 93 Heritage Softail, fairly minor when slowing down. Found the front tire had cupped.(Dunlop) Tire still fairly new but I had run it with low pressure causing the cupping….New tire, problem solved..Ran my 01 Electraglide 1034 miles in 15 hours 10 min. averaged 67mph no wobble…Was totally unaware of this wobble issue. Been riding with bikers over 50 years never heard anyone say they had experienced wobble..Can’t deny the testimonies though.

  15. My bike has a high speed wobble,trying to find out how to correct it. It does do it all the time

  16. kenny baker // April 7, 2016 at 4:40 pm //

    Had a modified Roadglide that would sometimes over 90 found out if you could depending on traffic change lanes it would go away but made me nervous. Had a Suzuki if rear tire got worn flat, it was anytime over a hundred

  17. My Heritage wobbles now the dealership said the spokes needed to be tightened I had it done but after a period of time the wobble came back.

  18. Anonymous // April 8, 2016 at 1:35 am //

    The wobble is caused by the rear tire or wheel or faulty factory alignment . Seen it a lot in the shop

  19. my 2014 ultra limited has been ridden north of 110mph several times and is solid as a rock.

  20. Scott Merchant // April 8, 2016 at 2:59 pm //

    Weave and wobble can happen on all makes and models of motorcycles and is due to tire wear, pressure, weight, speed and a few other factors. the following old video explains it the best..
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fvsDIq3WwVA&nohtml5=False

  21. A friend had me look his heritage over after developing a wobble at highway speeds. Found worn wheel bearings to be the cause. A commonly over looked maintenance check when replacing tires. Harley has sacrificed good beefy bearings for lighter ones with a bigger axle on newer models.

  22. Very common on 70-80 touring models cause weak rear shocks soft rear tire sidewall That flex in a curve. Solution air shocks, must check air pressure monthly and tire model get one with stiff sidewall,check air pressure monthly, Metzler best for high performance in the day,no flex sidewall, Dunlop, Avon all have addressed this today

  23. Seems like bikes with windshields at speed.My heritage above a hundred would wobble take the glass off no problem

  24. If you fit a touring link? it helps prevent the wobble.

  25. I had a wobble my 2005 Heritage Softail Classic, it wasn’t the motorcycle. it was a worn front tire. It didn’t look bad but when I was told it could be the front tire I bought a new tire, and the wobble was gone.

  26. Larry Franklin // April 11, 2016 at 2:52 am //

    I ride a Honda Vtx 1800n 2005 with windshield never had a problem, So it’s not with all bikes.

  27. Cricket Phifer // April 11, 2016 at 6:45 am //

    I have a 99 ultra. That did that a week ago with a passenger on back.It was a contant grab you seat and you ever skills falls in god hands. I was doing about 80 and all I could do to keep it up and safe.I was in the hammer lane and it was heading head in and out of both lanes. I was everything I could do to keep my passenger calm. I was hearding to lay it down in the grass and slide it to safe stop when the noise groves the grind in the shoulder. When my front tire hit a groove and jurk the front tire to side. I glanse at the speedo and it was still at 65 mph. And I told my passenger this is going to hurt. We both flew offthe bike I tried to make sure see fell on me to take the impact of her. We both got hurt and we survived but the mental trama is left in your sole and hard to deal with. Lost a lot that day but saved the bike and passengers but seam nothing been good afterwards it’s hard on you sole to relive it ever day. So becarefull out there it will change your life for good. So always where your leathers no matter how hot it get. So ride safe as you can and dress for the slide not the the ride it pays off.

  28. Cricket Phifer // April 11, 2016 at 6:47 am //

    Always ride scared you safer that way

  29. Stacey Skiles // April 11, 2016 at 12:34 pm //

    Love u,my friend

  30. Lori Jean Ebert // April 22, 2016 at 5:26 am //

    Had a new 2015 Softtail Deluxe CVO. Took it to the dealer 3xs complaining of the high speed wobble. They claimed they could not find an issue and had never heard of anything like it. They suggested the windshield was at fault…. I pointed out that my 2012 had no such issues and asked what had changed, evasiveness was all that remained.

  31. i have a 13 heritage softail, and after reading all the comments im going to keep that info in mind when im out riding again. I havent felt any wobble in mine as yet, and hope i never do. I dont ride fast just under speed limit

  32. Anonymous // April 26, 2016 at 11:52 pm //

    My Yamaha Roadstar had the “Death Wobble.” It was the front tire. It did not appear to have a problem by looking at it. After I replaced it with a new one (Michelin Road Commander II) the wobble disappeared and never came back. I was previously using the model of Dunlop tire that Harley uses from the factory!

  33. I looked at the Vidio of the police bike taking the corner and you can see street stretch and cracks that will make any bike do that and if getting on it in through shifts will do the same i have 2003 fat boy screeming eagle 70 thousand plus miles no problem I have rode many bikes in my life driver error I had kz1100 duel turbo ya that had a wobble all right you push it your going to get wobble watch a super bike race they wobble Harley rider for ever

  34. I have a 2015 cvo street glide . i just had my bike in for a 1000 mile service and told them about the shimmy/wobble it has around 70 on the highway.i have had many bikes and never experienced this before. They said it was normal buffering. One thing they told me to do was open the vent on the fairing. It stil didn’t help. So im going to have them check the fron wheel along with the axle and the wheel bearings.

  35. Del Robey. // May 2, 2016 at 2:50 am //

    I’ve been riding HD for 48 yrs. The Only time I’ve experienced a wobble is when the front tire is worn or cupped from not maintaining proper tire pressures. If the bike is properly serviced,I’ve never had any problems. I currently own a 2001 FLHTCI,with 60k miles on it and am not the least concerned with its operation. Harley Davidson makes a quality product. I’ve never had any issues with the operations of the motorcycle, if properly serviced.

  36. Dave Wood // May 2, 2016 at 3:31 pm //

    I seriously doubt if anyone had a wobble at 35 mph which was so bad that it put them down. That being said, the older bat wing bikes most certainly can develop a high speed wobble going straight at speeds around 100 mph. They also wobble in sweepers with a cross wind or when hammering the bike out of a turn. But, I’ve never had a real problem at legal speeds. The Rushmore bikes and the previous bikes don’t seem to have as much of a problem. I put a chassis stabilizer from Progressive on my 2012 Roadglide which pretty much took away the wobble on turns. Again, this is at higher speeds which most riders don’t push their bikes.

  37. christopher vanesler // May 2, 2016 at 11:34 pm //

    The only wobble I’ve experienced was high speed on a 69 BSA but never on a Hog.And I have taken them past there limit

  38. My 07 wideglide dose it at about 85

  39. All the wobbles I’ve experienced were due to worn tires or deer strikes… I own both Harleys and Goldwings,,, all pre 1985… The Older bikes would develop a wobble due to tire wear,, more gas would straighten the wobble out… Backing off the gas or breaking during a wobble will make it worse…

  40. I bought a 96 ultra classic and i’ve experienced the death wobble 100 plus k’s pretty nerve wracking. I also own a 06 heritage and have had that punching 190k’s and never experienced the death wobble on her so i do reckon it has something to do with the style of the swing arm on the ultra classic and road kings.

  41. doing a few things cure most wobbles. Mag wheels, OEM tires, properly filled tires with Nitrogen, properly filled shocks, balanced tires( note the number of weights and check pre-ride)and obey speed limits.
    I got 105000 on an ultra with no wobble below 85.

  42. I have a 2004 Fatboy,with 57,00+ miles.I have Michelin Commander II’s on it,and its smooth as glass at any speed.

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