Steering Wheel Lock Up While Driving – Causes & How to Fix?

Experiencing a steering wheel lockup while driving is dangerous. There are a number of reasons why the steering wheel acts like that.

It's crucial that you attend to this matterbecause if you ignore, you are vulnerable to getting into an accident.

In this article, we will discuss as to what the most common causes are and how to fix them.

Background

Earlier this year, several people filed lawsuits over the alleged defects of the Hyundai Accent and the Hyundai Elantra cars from 2013 to 2016. 

The alleged defects were about steering wheels that lock up on them while they were driving. Furthermore, turning on a corner became rather difficult.One of the complainants told his story that the steering wheel getting locked up almost caused him to crash.

Making a turn was impossible as it was very hard to turn the steering wheel. It's said that the power steering supposedly failed. Furthermore, if he were driving at a faster speed it would really cost him his life.

How Does the Steering Lock Works

The steering lock of the car wheel works when there's no key in the ignition. When the steering wheel is moved, a spring-loaded lever is engaged with a slot and locks the mechanism.

This, in turn, makes it impossible to move the car when it's in park mode. It's also a safety feature where it prevents car theft.

Causes of the Car Wheel Locking Up

Steering wheels are automatically locked as a safety feature. You would need to put a key in the ignition to get it unlocked.

That was supposed to be the standard operating procedures. However, there are things that get out of the driver's control which includes faulty locking of the steering wheel at any time despite the key was definitely in the ignition.

If you happen to experience this once, you must identify what are the possible causes before trying to drive it again. Let's discuss the causes as to why the steering wheel locks up one by one.

Related: Steering Wheel Not Centered While Driving Straight – How To Fix?

1. Power Steering Pump

As mentioned in the previous section, the problem was about the power steering failure. Power steering wasn't common in the past and that's why locked-up steering wheels never actually happened.

Steering wheels before require arm muscles to turn corners. A power steering pump's main function is to make steering less hassle for the drivers. 

When the engine accidentally dies, it also results to the power steering pump to lose its assisting power to make smooth turns.

With the absence of this important part, you get the feeling that the steering wheel is locked even though the correct term is it has become rather hard to turn.

One more cause to why the steering wheels lock up is when you do multiple sharp turns in a short period of time.

These abrupt turns can make the power steering pump to be stuck. The effects of which is it would become difficult or impossible to properly control the steering wheel.

Signs of a faulty power steering pump are as follows:

a. Steering wheel response is slow

Aside from making the car wheel stiff, a power steering pump that is failing can also make the steering slow to respond. For example, a shift to the far left only moves the car's front a little bit on the left.

b. Squeaky noises

Whining or squealing noises can also be heard when you turn the wheel or when you start the vehicle. The noises come from the hood of the car. This means that the belt is under tension or being faulty. Engines today use serpentine belts to connect all accessories.

2. Steering Lock Ignition

Cars have their steering lock in combination with the on/off switch of the engine when the key is pushed into the ignition.

However, there are times that the key assembly can fail which, in turn, locks the car's steering while driving. This is called sudden lockup. Of course, it's more dangerous when you drive at faster speeds!

A key ignition assembly dulls up with age or fatigue. You can identify if the ignition assembly is starting to be faulty when you try to start the engine by applying more pressure on the key.

Furthermore, the key cylinder may or may not follow commands intermittently when you change the direction of the key.

Related: Best Remote Car Starter – Reviews & Buyer Guide

3. Steering Lock Bar

The steering lock bar is a component that locks the car wheel when the engine of the vehicle is turned off.

If there's factory defect such as the improper casting of the steering lock bar, a crack starts to form at the surface.

The crack can expand where the steering wheel becomes difficult to unlock even when stationary. This then becomes one of the reasons why steering wheels lock up during driving.

At times, the spring design of the steering lock malfunctions as it becomes subject to continuous fatigue for a very long time.

4. Steering Column

A steering column is attached directly to the steering wheel. It is also located at the top of the steering system. Its main function is to help in the steering operation by directing the vehicle to the intended direction.

A faulty steering column could make the steering wheel hard to operate. This can cause a minor lockup of sorts but not completely that you may not be able to steer the vehicle anymore.

This can also result in driving to unintended directions. Moreover, you can feel a pop in the steering wheel when you move it and making turns become very hard and rough. There might be some kind of debris restricting theproper operation of the steering column. 

How to Fix Locked Steering Wheel

As soon as you know what must be the problem with your steering wheel, it’s time for you to engage with the problem for the best fix.

The following are some of the fixing solutions based from the enumerated causes from the previous section. You can have them DIY, consult a mechanic friend, or have the authorized repairman do them for you.

1. Go to the Repair Shop

If you have no knowledge of how cars work or you've exhausted all means possible, it's time to bring the vehicle to a car repair shop.

Not only they can identify the specific problem but they can also prevent such happenings from occurring again. However, you have to prepare a hefty sum as there would be parts that would need replacing and also some additional labor payment.

If your vehicle is covered within the warranty period, all the more reason that you should bring it to the dealership. They have their own mechanic which specializes in fixing specific model cars. You may only have to pay lesser in value.

2. Replace the Power Steering Pump

A power steering pump will need to be repaired when noises coming from the hood become too much.

The primary reason this can fail is the fluid leakage around the pump's gaskets and seals. But if the fluid's reservoir is completely emptied, the other components like the steering rack and lines would be damaged. This will require complete replacement.

If you have expertise in mechanics, you may repair the power steering pump all by yourself. The main tool you will use then is a special pulley puller for power steering pump. A regular pulley puller is not recommended. The serpentine belt might have been worn out which may need replacing.

3. Add Power Steering Oil

Power assisted steering as in power steering pump helps in magnifying the force so that the driver can easily steer the vehicle. At the core of the rig is the belt driving the rotor from the engine.

This rotor regulates the flow of the hydraulic fluid which is incompressible to transfer energy efficiently.

Thus, if this fluid is depleted, then steering may be difficult or may lock up. This can be discerned by the noise coming from the hood. If the pump is underloaded under normal conditions, then it's more likely that the fluid is not enough.

Fill the fluid reservoir until full. The incompressible fluid can be a viscous mineral oil. Anyhow, this will solve your problem in turning the stiff car wheel. If there are leaks, it will show at the bottom of the vehicle.

In that case, you may have to repair or replace the power steering pump depending on the extent of the damage. 

4. Fix or Replace the Ignition Switch Cylinder

One of the easiest ways to unlock the locked steering wheel while the key is at the ignition is this: move the steering wheel to the left and right until the lock disengages.

If it doesn't respond, move the wheel left to right while turning the key at the ignition. Apply only light pressure on the key so you won't add further damage on it.

Wiggle the wheel until the lock disengages. The key at the ignition will then be able to turn freely signaling that the wheel is unlocked.

If you think there's debris caught into the ignition cylinder, you may use a canned air with a small nozzle to remove the debris. Insert the small nozzle into the hole of the ignition and spray small amounts.

If the methods above still don't work, then most probable reasons are the ignition cylinder is faulty and may need replacement. A broken ignition cylinder is when the key fails to engage the pins inside that will connect with various systems of your vehicle. You can replace it on your own if you're confident. But it's best to consult it with a car expert for better results.

5. Fix Steering Lock Bar

If it's a factory defect, then you can simply bring your car to where you bought it for maintenance and replacement. The fatigued spring of the steering lock bar may also need to be replaced.

6. Removing Debris from the Steering Column

As mentioned earlier, dirt, dust, or debris may be hindering the inside of the steering column. If you know where to look, you can easily remove that debris. Otherwise, have a mechanic fix it for you.

Related: Creaking Noise When Turning Steering Wheel: How To Fix?

Conclusion

Just as there are many reasons that the steering wheel lockup while driving, there are also many solutions on how to fix them.

You just have to be patient as to which of the vehicle parts are faulty and you will be able to solve it in no time. Remember that you must attend to this matter ASAP as it might save your life. As the saying goes: to prevent is to protect!

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