Things often go wrong with vehicles, and it can be concerning if you don’t know what’s happening. For instance, what does it mean when you have a loose steering wheel?
The turning of a steering wheel should correspond to the car’s turning. If the wheel is overturning, shaking, vibrating, or shifting, it could mean that the steering wheel is loose. This is caused by worn tie rods, pitman arms, and front suspension parts (among other things).
It looks like there are a few different ways to notice your steering wheel is loose. In this article, we’ll explore what the steering wheel feels like, what causes it, and what you can do about it.
What Does a Loose Steering Wheel Feel Like?
A loose steering wheel makes you feel like you’re overturning when taking a turn, and you then need to correct the movement. This is also called “free play” and can happen in stages. This is not the same as overcorrecting a turn; instead, it feels like the steering wheel is moving too quickly.
You may also hear a knocking sound when you drive over a bump in the road. This is due to loose linkages connected to the steering box. If you’re on the highway and traveling at higher speeds, you may feel the steering wheel “shimmying” or vibrating, causing the car to move side to side more than it should.
These signs don’t need to happen all at the same time and can occur separately or individually. Contact your dealership or mechanic immediately if you experience these signs while driving. Steering can quickly deteriorate and can result in serious accidents.
Why Do Steering Wheels Become Loose?
There are three main components to any vehicle steering system.
- The steering box/rack and pinion that’s connected to the steering wheel by the steering column
- The linkages that connect the steering box to the front wheels
- The front suspension parts that allow the wheel to pivot at the joints and hold the tires in position on the road
The most common causes of free play in your steering wheel are looseness in the steering gearbox itself and looseness in one or more of the linkages. These linkages are responsible for connecting the entire assembly, so the whole thing can begin to shake or pull apart when one becomes loose.
Within the steering gearbox/rack and pinion, the gears’ tooth contact will change as they begin to wear down from continual usage and stress. You may be able to fix your issue with a quick gear ratio adjustment. In cars with higher mileage, we recommend you replace the entire gearbox/rack and pinion.
If you know what you’re looking for under your car, check out your tie rod ends, control arm bushings, ball joints, and steering gears. You’ll be able to see visible wear or damage to these parts and then determine if they need replacing.
Uneven wear on the tires from an improper alignment can cause the steering wheel to shake, making many people believe their steering is loose. While the shaking is from a bad alignment, the uneven wear can lead to a loosening steering system due to the extra stress placed on the tie rods and control arms.
How Quickly Should I Contact My Mechanic?
Loose steering wheels don’t go away on their own and must be repaired. Once a ball joint or tie rod becomes loose, it will only continue to loosen further, resulting in a possible steering failure. This is a worst-case scenario, so it’s essential to contact a mechanic as soon as you notice something may be wrong.
If you take it to a shop and they tell you there’s nothing wrong, you can always get a second opinion somewhere else. You know how your car feels typically and deserve to be listened to if you think something is wrong. It’s important that you feel safe while driving your vehicle.
Diagnosing Loose Steering Wheels
You or your mechanic should perform a series of tests to measure how much the wheels turn when the steering wheel turns. While the car is stationary, turn the steering wheel and check how quickly and how far the tires turn.
Check the gearbox/rack and pinion for loose gears, worn-down teeth, or if overall maintenance is required. Each individual steering linkage throughout the entire steering system should be checked.
Check the steering box for wear and tear or leakage. You would determine a leak through low oil levels in the box. This can be its own problem and can result in gears grinding.
What Do I Do if the Steering Fails While Driving?
No one wants to think about this, but it’s better to be safe than sorry. If your steering fails while you’re on the road, you need to stop as soon as it’s safe. If no one else is on the road, brake as quickly as possible with even brake pressure. Braking too hard too fast can result in your car fishtailing or flipping.
If road conditions are wet or icy, pump your brakes and downshift to avoid skidding. In a manual, this is accomplished by your gear stick. In an automatic, the car may try to downshift for you. There are also D1 and D2 options on automatic gear sticks that will slow your vehicle down.
If you’re in a heavily trafficked area, alert other drivers by flashing your lights, honking, or having a passenger wave their hands out the window. At night, turn your high beams on and off. It’s essential to slow down gradually, so other drivers have the opportunity to respond. If you have any steering left, try to guide the car to a shoulder or median.
Contact your mechanic if you notice your steering wheel shaking, shifting, or overturning. These signs could indicate a loose steering system that could become a much more difficult issue. If you lose steering while driving, try to slow down as safely as possible, depending on the road conditions.