The steering wheel system is remarkably trouble-free considering you use it every time you get in your car. But is your steering wheel locked up? That’s probably why you’re here. We’re going to try to help solve your locking steering wheel.
A locked steering wheel is unnerving to say the least, especially when you’re driving. Even if it locks when you just got in your car, it makes your heart drops because you won’t be able to use your car. And you’re going to have to spend at least half the day sorting it out. Anyway, here’s our table of contents to help you navigate:
Steering Wheel System: What & How?
We always like to explain the basics of the component in question before we get into solutions and repair costs. Understanding how it works will help you make an informed decision when going to an auto shop for repairs. And sometimes it helps to make sense of the expensive costs.
We won’t get into too much detail about the steering system itself though. What you need to know is that most cars use a rack and pinion system, which is essentially some gears at the end of your steering wheel that operate the steering knuckle.
Additionally, cars have a power steering system. The two most popular systems are hydraulic and electronic. Hydraulic power steering uses hydraulic fluid to multiply the turning force from the driver onto the steering mechanism.
Meanwhile, electric power steering uses a motor to multiply that force. Again, we won’t get into too much detail but you can learn more here or watch the video below:
What you need to know is that these systems can fail, especially if you don’t take proper care of them. And it can result in a locked steering wheel. In addition to the power steering systems, most cars have had a locking mechanism in the steering column since the late ’60s.
This is an anti-theft feature so that even if morally-compromised individuals can get in your car and start it, they won’t be able to use the steering wheel since it needs the key to be unlocked.
The system works by engaging a metal pin into the steering column when you take the ignition key out. Note that many cars don’t have this feature anymore since transponder keys are usually enough to prevent theft.
Steering Wheel Locked Up: Causes
Now that you understand why your steering wheel can lock up, let’s get into the causes. The three most common causes include power steering issues, faulty ignition lock assembly, and steering column problems. Here’s what it might be depending on the scenario:
Steering Wheel Locked Up And Car Turned Off While Driving
The steering wheel locking up when the car dies while you’re driving is actually quite normal but that doesn’t make it any less terrifying. The good news is that your steering system is probably fine.
The cause for the lock-up here is the power steering system shuts off since the system is powered by the engine’s drive belt. This applies to all hydraulic power steering systems and certain electric ones. Some electric power steering runs on the battery instead.
Anyway, when the engine dies, the drive belt stops spinning and therefore the power steering system stops working as well. If this happens, try restarting the engine. If the engine starts and the steering wheel works again, then you don’t need to worry about your steering system.
You’ll still need to address why your engine died while driving though, as that indicates a faulty part with either the engine or the electrical system. If the engine dies but the electronic accessories still work, it’s likely an engine issue. But if the electronic accessories die along with the engine, you’re likely looking at an electrical problem. You can learn more in our guide.
Anyway, if this ever happens to you, turn on your hazard lights immediately. Always turn on your hazard lights when you’re having issues on the road, it’s there to signal to other drivers that you’re having issues and they should stay clear from you.
Then try to coast to a safe space, provided that there are no obstacles in front of you. Otherwise, brake as soon as possible since it’s likely the braking system isn’t fully working either. If this isn’t the scenario you encountered, keep reading:
Steering Wheel Locked Up While Driving
If the steering locks up while driving but the engine stays on, there are two potential causes: a faulty power steering or a faulty ignition lock assembly. However, in the case of the power steering, you should still be able to turn the steering wheel while the car is still moving.
This is because there’s less resistance on the tires if you turn the wheel when the car is in motion. In most cases, the steering can still turn albeit it feels much heavier. On the other hand, an ignition lock issue will cause the steering to completely lock up. It feels like there’s something in the way of the steering wheel.
Another key difference is that the steering will usually be stuck at either the 11 o’clock or 1 o’clock position depending on the car’s make and model. This is because that’s where the lock engages, and even when it does, you should be able to wiggle the steering wheel by about 5 degrees before it refuses to move.
Note that a power steering issue is more likely. It’s practically unheard of for the steering wheel’s lock mechanism to engage while you’re driving. In any case, you shouldn’t attempt to continue driving as it’s dangerous. Try to stop at a safe place, and you should call for a tow truck.
Steering Wheel Locked Up While Parked
If you just got in your car and you’re about to drive away but the steering wheel is locked up, this could be an issue with the power steering, the ignition lock mechanism, or the steering column. We’ve already explained the first two, so let’s focus on that last one.
The steering column is the rod that connects your steering wheel to the steering mechanism. Damage is unlikely to occur to them, but it can wear out over time and cause a steering lock-up. Additionally, it can get dirty with grime and makes it hard for you to turn the steering wheel. Sometimes to the point where the steering won’t turn.
Steering Wheel Locked Up While Parked And Key Won’t Turn
If this happens to you, then the most likely culprit is a faulty ignition lock assembly since the key itself won’t turn. Sometimes it’s nothing serious though, and here’s what you try:
- Wiggle the steering wheel while trying to turn the key. Some cars will prevent the key from turning if the steering is not at the correct angle. Be careful not to force the key to turn.
- Check the battery. Some cars won’t allow the key to turn if the battery is flat, and you can check it by using a multimeter. Read our guide to car batteries to learn more.
- Try the spare key. Your main key may be worn and isn’t engaging the lock wafers, which prevents it from turning.
- Spray a WD-40 dry lube to clean out the wafers inside the lock. Dust and debris may prevent them from engaging and prevents the key from turning.
- Make sure the transmission is in Park. If it is, then jiggle the gear shift. This is more common when you have issues taking out the key, but some cars may prevent you from turning the key if the transmission isn’t Park. Try jiggling the shifter as it may not have engaged the gear properly.
If nothing worked, this seems to be more of an issue with the ignition key cylinder assembly. You’ll probably find our guide to ignition keys more helpful. If else, stick around:
Car Brakes And Steering Wheel Locked Up While Driving
This is very rare but it’s the most terrifying scenario of the lot. Your brakes and steering wheel locking up together essentially removes any control you have over the car.
While it’s rare, some people have experienced it. Even worse, this is quite difficult to diagnose since the brake and steering wheel lock systems have no connection whatsoever.
Our best guess is that there’s an issue with the Powertrain Control Module (PCM) that causes the brakes and steering to lock up. The PCM is the computer that controls almost every aspect of your car, combining several computers and sensors to ensure the car works properly.
We have an article about PCM repairs, and you might find it helpful. But if this happened to you, we think it’s best to consult with a trusted mechanic. Do not attempt to drive the car as it may happen again.
How To Diagnose A Locked Steering Wheel
We won’t lie, troubleshooting a locked steering wheel is quite difficult. But here’s what you can do to rule out some of the possibilities:
1. Check The Power Steering Fluid
As mentioned, a power steering issue can be the cause of your troubles. The main sign that you have a power steering issue is whining noises when you try to turn the steering wheel. This can be caused by either a low power steering fluid or a faulty pump (if you have hydraulic power steering).
You can easily check the fluid level inside the engine bay. Locate the fluid’s reservoir, which is a plastic container that usually says ‘power steering’ on the cap. Remove the cap, and then wipe down the dipstick with a clean cloth.
Afterward, reinsert the cap, and then take it out again. The dipstick has a minimum and maximum marker (once you’ve learned how to read oil level on dipstick), and see where the fluid ends. If it’s below the minimum marker, refilling the power steering fluid will temporarily fix your problem.
However, you’ll need to find the leak, as your car is not supposed to lose power steering fluid. You should also check if the fluid is dirty, has bubbles in it, or has become thick (they should have the same viscosity as new engine oil). These can cause the power steering to lose its effectiveness, and even damage components over time.
Meanwhile, an electric power steering doesn’t use fluids. But since it’s electric, there are usually trouble codes that signal to the driver when there’s an issue with the system. This segues us into the next section:
2. Scan The OBD System
If the power steering fluid seems fine and you don’t recall any signs of power steering issues, you may be able to diagnose the problem by scanning your car’s On-Board Diagnostic (OBD) system. The OBD system registers a trouble code when the car’s control unit detects an issue it can’t fix.
Keep in mind that these trouble codes usually trigger a warning light on the dashboard. So, if there aren’t any warning lights, you won’t find any trouble codes to help you diagnose the problem. Additionally, this only applies to cars that have electronic sensors for the steering system.
Anyway, if you have a car with an OBD-2 system (which is every car after 1996) this is pretty simple to do:
- Get hold of an OBD-2 scan tool.
- Locate the car’s OBD port, usually underneath the dashboard on the driver’s side behind a plastic panel. See your owner’s manual if you can’t find it.
- Plug the scan tool into the port and turn it on.
- Scan the OBD system, some scanners will require you to input your car make and model or VIN.
- It will then display the trouble codes. Some scanners may show what the code means. If it doesn’t, then take note so you can search what the code means.
One of the codes that signal a steering wheel lock issue is the U0236, which is a generic code that means ‘Lost Communication With Column Lock Module.’ This module is what operates the steering wheel lock mechanism among other things. And it may need replacing or wiring repairs.
There are other codes as well, such as the P0637 that indicate an issue with the power steering controls. Once you find the trouble codes, you can then research further on how to fix the issue.
3. Inspect the Steering Column (Or Call A Professional)
Last but not least—and certainly not the least difficult—is you can inspect the steering column. As mentioned, the steering column can wear out or locks up because of grime. In the case of the latter, cleaning it may solve your problem.
By removing the steering column cover you can also check if the ignition lock assembly is locking the steering wheel. If this is the case, then you’ll need to remove the ignition lock and replace it with a new one.
Note that inspecting the steering column will require you to disassemble and remove your steering wheel, and then remove the column cover itself. The difficulty depends on the car’s make and model, but it’s certainly not for those who are not fond of DIY work. Take a look:
The video above shows how to remove the column, and then remove the ignition lock to free the steering wheel. As you can see, it’s not exactly an easy process.
Also, the steps differ depending on the car’s make and model, with some cars requiring you to disassemble the steering wheel before you can disassemble the cover. You should call a trusted mechanic to do the diagnosis for you if you’re not comfortable with dismantling the steering column.
Repairs And Cost Estimates
There are quite a lot of potential repairs here, and here are the cost estimates:
- Power steering fluid change and top-up cost $125 at most for most cars.
- Power steering pump replacement costs between $400 and $800 depending on the car’s make and model.
- Other power steering repairs include replacing the hoses and the reservoir tank. The cost ranges from $150 to $450 for most cars.
- Electric power steering module replacement costs between $155 and $185 on average.
- Electric power steering motor replacement costs around $800 on average.
- Ignition lock assembly replacement costs around $200 for most cars.
- Steering column replacement can be anywhere between $500 and $900 depending on your car’s make and model. Certain cars can go up to $1,500.
Note that the costs above include labor costs, but they’re a very rough estimate and your car’s make and model, as well as local labor rates, can affect the actual cost greatly. Always inquire to several shops to compare prices.
Lastly, a rack and pinion replacement may be necessary. This is the heart of the steering system. While issues with the rack and pinion usually result in a loose-feeling steering wheel or play, in some rare cases, it may cause the steering wheel to lock up as well. They can cost up to $1,800 to replace in some cars.
Most of the replacement jobs are difficult to do at home and we don’t recommend you do it yourself. It’s better to just save yourself some time and pay a professional to do it for you.
Locked Steering Wheel Facts
- Steering wheels lock as a safety feature to prevent vehicle movement when there is no key, or if the wrong key is inserted into the ignition.
- Turning the key in the ignition is the main way to unlock a locked steering wheel.
- Over time, ignition tumblers can fail, causing the steering wheel to remain locked.
- Applying gentle pressure to the key while turning it is necessary when the key and the wheel remain locked in place.
- Applying pressure to the wheel in the opposite direction of the locking pin while turning the key simultaneously will unlock the steering wheel.
- Shaking or rocking the wheel while attempting to unlock it could damage the locking pin and decrease the chances of successfully unlocking the wheel.
- Cleaning the ignition cylinder with electrical cleaner or canned air and sliding the key in and out can help loosen sticky locks.
- A damaged or worn-out key can also prevent the wheel from being unlocked.
- Ignition lock assembly can be replaced at home by purchasing the correct replacement part and following the necessary steps.
- Before securing the steering column and plastic cover, make sure the engine starts, and the steering wheel lock disengages by turning the key while applying pressure to the wheel in the opposite direction of the lock pin.
Steering Wheel Locked Up FAQ
If you still have questions about your locking steering wheel, these answers might be helpful for you:
Why Is My Steering Locked Up
The steering wheel has a locking mechanism that works with the car’s ignition key system. When the key is taken out of the slot, the ignition lock mechanism inserts a metal pin into the steering column to prevent the steering wheel from moving. This is a theft prevention system. It’s also possible that you have a power steering problem. In this case, the steering wheel isn’t locked, but without the power steering, it becomes so heavy to turn that it seems like it’s locked.
How To Fix Locked Up Steering Wheel
Try wiggling the steering wheel while turning your ignition keys to the ‘ACC’ position several times. The ignition lock mechanism might be faulty, and doing this may help to disengage the lock. If you have an automatic transmission, ensure that the transmission is in ‘Park’. If that doesn’t help, you’re going to have to repair the power steering system, the ignition lock mechanism, or the steering column depending on the cause.
What To Do When Your Steering Wheel Locked Up
If it locks up when your engine dies, try restarting the engine. The power steering will seize to work when the engine shuts and restarting the engine will probably fix your issue. If the lock-up occurs while driving and the engine is still on, try to coast to a safe space and put the car out of harm’s way. Afterward, call a tow truck to get back home or to the nearest repair shop. Do not attempt to drive it, this applies as well if the steering wheel locks while you’re parked.
How To Disable Steering Wheel Lock
You can’t disable the steering lock mechanism. It’s a theft-prevention system and carmakers have no way to disable the system. But if you’re talking about how to unlock a locked steering wheel, try wiggling the steering wheel while turning the ignition key several times. Sometimes the steering wheel needs to be at the correct angle for the ignition lock mechanism to disengage.
To summarize, the three most common causes of a steering wheel lock is a faulty power steering, faulty ignition lock mechanism, or problems with the steering column. Additionally, damage to the rack and pinion mechanism of the steering can also cause this, although it’s much less likely.
Whatever the cause, it’s best not to attempt to drive the car if you’re having steering issues. Even if you can unlock it, it may lock again during driving and you’ll lose control over the car.
Checking the steering system is quite difficult as it often requires you to disassemble some parts. Even disassembling the steering column cover requires quite a lot of work, and you can do more harm than good if you’re not mechanically adept.
Best leave the diagnosis and repairs to professionals. While the repairs are potentially expensive, they will save you time and the hassle of trying to repair them yourself. It’s crucial for your driving safety as well, best not to compromise. Don’t forget to shop around and compare prices before proceeding to make sure you get the best quote. Good luck!