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When you think of car safety, you probably think of following the rules of the road. However, failing to keep up with your vehicle’s maintenance could also make driving unsafe. Following the speed limit won’t stop tire blowouts or engine failure if you don’t maintain your car correctly. By the same token, a loose steering wheel can affect how you drive, endangering you and others.

Though uncommon, sometimes your steering wheel can lock up while driving. What causes this dangerous problem, and how can you fix it before it turns deadly?

Common causes of a locked-up steering wheel

Hands on a steering wheel while driving in Ibiza, Spain, in 2004
A locked-up steering wheel while driving poses a safety risk | via Getty Images

Sometimes, your steering wheel locks up as a safety mechanism. Automakers design steering wheels to lock up to prevent unsafe maneuvers, such as sharp turns. Even if this doesn’t cause your wheel to lock up, you could jam the power steering pump or gradually damage your transmission.

Other times, you could lock the wheel accidentally by engaging the ignition lock. On turn-key ignition cars, it’s activated by turning the wheel immediately after you remove the key. It’s designed to be an anti-theft measure, but many drivers don’t know it exists or how to reverse it.

According to It Still Runs, wheel locking is also often caused by common maintenance oversights. If your steering wheel locks while driving, it’s likely caused by a steering linkage failure. Steering linkage consists of the ball joints, control arms, and tie rod ends. These components can break down naturally or become damaged if you frequently drive on bad roads.

Power steering problems can also cause your steering wheel to bind in one direction. This issue is typically caused by a bad steering rack, either due to mechanical malfunction or being clogged with dirt. It could also be due to low power steering fluid, but that’s unlikely if the wheel still has some functionality.

How to fix your steering wheel when it locks up

Disengaging the ignition lock is probably the easiest fix you can do yourself. Simply put the key back in the ignition and turn it until the engine starts. You might be met with resistance, but turning the steering wheel as you turn the key can help.

Safe driving practices can reduce the likelihood of your steering wheel locking up while driving. If the problem persists, it might be time to replace the power steering fluid. Because the fluid can break down and become contaminated with harmful particles, change the fluid every two years.

Preserve the power steering fluid for as long as possible by flushing it every 30,000 miles. You can check out the power fluid reservoir under your vehicle’s hood. If the fluid is dark, filled with debris, or emits a burning smell, replace it immediately. 

In addition, Car From Japan says the problem could be due to a backed-up power steering pump. If the system leaks, it’s relatively inexpensive to repair. However, if the fluid isn’t circulating correctly, you’ll probably need to replace the pump.

If the problem stems from debris inside the steering column, thoroughly cleaning the entire column should help. Unless you have experience with DIY vehicle repairs, always visit a reputable mechanic for an accurate diagnosis.

Changing the power steering fluid can help

For almost all of these problems, the root cause lies with low or bad power steering fluid. This substance makes turning the steering wheel easy. It also protects the seals on valves, hoses, and O-rings. A good supply of power steering fluid is essential to staying safe behind the wheel and avoiding costly repairs.

Editor’s note: The Digital Editors contributed to this article.


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