Steering Wheel Lock Up While Driving: How to Fix Yourself

Having your steering wheel lock-up while driving is a very rare phenomenon. While it is true that the majority of modern vehicles have an automatic steering locking mechanism, this is only meant to engage when the ignition is turned off, and the car is stationary. This is a safety and anti-theft mechanism; it also prevents the power steering mechanism from being damaged by someone forcing the steering wheel when the car ignition is turned off.

If your car steering wheel remains locked after you have placed the key in the ignition before start up, you may need to ‘jiggle’ the steering wheel a little to de-activate the lock mechanism. This is completely normal, and you should not worry if this happens from time to time.

The majority of modern vehicles are equipped with a hydraulically assisted power steering mechanism. This mechanism relies on a hydraulic pump, which is driven directly from a belt attached to your engine. The hydraulic pump supplies oil pressure to your car’s power steering system. At its core, a rotary valve senses when a turn is made with the steering wheel, and automatically uses the hydraulic pressure to assist in turning the steering in the desired direction. It goes without saying then, that any failure in this mechanism may cause a dramatic change in the feeling of your steering, or even a complete lock-up of your steering.

In this article, we will look at some of the reasons that could cause your steering wheel to lock up while driving, and, if this does happen, the ways that you can address it.

Reasons why your steering wheel may lock up while driving

Although highly unlikely, it is conceivable that your steering wheel may lock up while driving. Below are some of the reasons that may cause your steering wheel to lock up:

Power steering failure

While a failure in your power steering system will most probably not cause your steering wheel to completely lock up, it may cause it to suddenly feel very heavy – so much so that it may feel that your steering has locked up. Vehicles fitted with power steering mechanisms are designed to operate only when there is hydraulic pressure to assist in turning the wheel. A loss of pressure could also be caused by damage to one or more of the power steering pipes, resulting in a loss of power steering fluid, and therefore pressure. The good news in this case is that your steering wheel should still be functional, but may require much more force to turn than usual.

Electronic ignition system failure

It is possible that a failure in your car’s electronic ignition system may malfunction, causing the lock pin to engage while the car is still running, This pin is only meant to engage when the ignition is turned off; however, it is plausible that it may engage either due to a total loss of power to the electrical ignition circuit, or due to a mechanical failure in the actual pin mechanism. In this case, no amount of force that you could exert on the steering wheel would render the steering usable again.

A mechanical failure in the steering column or rack-and-pinion assembly

A mechanical failure in one of the many mechanical components in the steering mechanism may cause a loss of steering or the steering to seize up. This could be due to a breakage in the steering column itself (the rod and universal joint that connects your steering wheel to the rack-and-pinion assembly), a failure of one or more of the gears on the rack, or a failure in one or more of the tie rod arms that connect the rack and pinion to the turning wheel itself. A mechanical failure may arise due to a sudden, sharp load on the steering assembly (possibly due to driving over a large rock, or hitting a severe pothole), or due to a fatigue failure in one of the components (where excessive cyclical positive and negative stress on a component eventually causes failure). The good news here is that this is highly unlikely, as all of the steering components are well protected in most vehicles and are engineered to outlast the lifetime of the car under normal or even heavy usage.

What should I do when my steering wheel locks up while driving?

It goes without saying that you should attempt to stop your car immediately, and try and get your vehicle off the road. If this is not possible, you should leave your car where it stands and retreat to a safe place out of the way of traffic. You should not attempt to drive your vehicle to the closest repair centre, and should call a break down service to tow your vehicle to the closest repair centre.

Can I fix it myself?

It is always recommended to get professional advice and assistance, especially when dealing with the steering system of your car. However, here are some things that you can check yourself:

Check the level of your power steering fluid.

All vehicles with power steering will have a small clear reservoir (about 75mm in diameter) under the hood (in the engine bay), with a clear liquid inside. This is your power steering (hydraulic) fluid. It should be labelled, and will have a maximum and minimum level indicator on the side of the reservoir. First, check to see if there is any liquid inside this reservoir; then see if the level is between the maximum and minimum mark. If there is no liquid in the reservoir, this is an indication that there has been a leak in the system.You can fill the reservoir up with power steering fluid (obtainable from most garages and service centres), and wait to see if the level stays the same. If this is the case, the steering may function properly again. If the level drops quickly, this is an indication of a leak in one of the hydraulic steering pipes.

Visually inspect the steering mechanism underneath your car.

You will need to climb underneath your car to see if there has been any damage to the rack and pinion steering assembly or to one of the tie rod arms that connect to each front wheel. Pay close attention to the exposed components as these are the most likely to have suffered any mechanical damage. You will most probably not be able to inspect the steering column itself as this will be concealed within the dashboard of your car.

Inspect the wiring of your car.

It is sometimes the case that some bad wiring or excessive heat close to the engine may have caused an electrical short from the battery of your car. If this is the case, you should be able to see the signs of this: smoke or burn marks around the wiring. An electrical short may cause a malfunction of the ignition system, which may in turn cause a failure in the steering lock mechanism. If you see any signs of electrical malfunction, you should disconnect the battery and wait until your car can be seen by a repair centre.

How much will it cost to fix?

Depending upon your specific problem, the cost to repair this issue will vary. If it is a case of a hydraulic power steering fluid leak, you could expect to pay between €25  and €75 at a repair centre to replace the damaged pipe or seal, and top up the reservoir with power steering fluid. If you are able to this yourself, it may only cost you  between €5 and €10. However, if your system has run completely dry, there may be damage to the pump or other hydraulic components. Replacing the pump is far more costly, and you could expect to pay around €150 for this at a repair centre.

If there is structural damage to the rack-and-pinion assembly or tie rod arms underneath your car, you could expect to pay between €200 and €400 at a service centre for repairs.

In the case of the steering lock mechanism needing replacement or repair, you could expect to pay between €200 and €300 at a service centre to have it repaired. This is also highly dependent on the model of car that you drive as some manufacturers only sell the whole steering column or steering wheel as a single assembly, meaning that you can not replace the lock mechanism only. In this case, you could expect to pay significantly more than €300.

Question and answers

What is a manual disabling steering wheel lock?

A manual disabling steering wheel lock is a steel U-shaped bar that locks in place over your steering wheel to prevent it from being turned. This is an anti-theft device.

What does it mean when a car locks up?

In this context, a car ‘locking up’ means that one is unable to turn the steering wheel.