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Why Is My Steering Wheel Locked? [And How To Unlock It]

Locked steering wheels have caused confusion and frustration among many car owners for the longest time. However, most of the time, this situation does not deserve the panic it gets.  So why does the steering wheel lock?  We've done the research for your reading pleasure.

Modern cars have a steering wheel lock feature as part of their anti-theft system. Most of the time, unlocking it involves a few wiggles of the steering wheel and a few clicks on the ignition. However, some major steering components may fail occasionally and cause the wheel to lock up. These failures may require professional assistance.

Would you like to know more about the possible causes of and solutions to locked steering wheels? If so, then we've got the information you need!  Do read on, and we'll give you helpful tips and tricks to ease your driving experience.

Man driving safely inside the car, Why Is My Steering Wheel Locked? [And How To Unlock It]

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What Causes My Steering Wheel To Lock?

Although steering wheel locking is a common occurrence in modern cars, it is often due to a feature that deters car thieves. 

Steering And Ignition Lock

The anti-theft locking feature activates to prevent the steering wheel from turning as well as the car from starting.  If you turn the steering wheel far enough after switching the engine off, you can activate this feature.

Disengaging the steering wheel lock is quite simple. In keyed ignition cars, you will need to insert your key in the ignition, give the wheel a little turn, and gently twist the key to the "On" position.

The process is similar in cars with push-button ignition systems.  Instead of turning the key, you just need to push the start button once without stepping on the brake pedal.

Faulty Ignition Switch Or Cylinder

In relation to the steering wheel and ignition lock, ignition cylinders may also pose a problem. The ignition cylinder may contain keyhole tumblers, an ignition lock, and other moving parts that may bind up.

If these ignition cylinder components get stuck, then you might not be able to turn your key to free up your steering wheel.  You can try to clean the dirt or jar the components loose with a little force.

Check out this video on how to work on stuck ignition cylinders on your own.  However, some of these procedures may be too complex and risky, and you may want to call your dealership or an automotive locksmith.

Steering Wheel Problems With Different Power Steering Systems

If the steering wheel locking feature or the ignition cylinder are not causing the wheel to lock, then you may have other areas to look at. 

Different power steering systems have different components as well as different problem sources.  To start off, let's enumerate today's power steering systems.

  1. Hydraulic power steering uses hydraulic pressure generated by a power steering pump to help turn the wheels. The power steering belt drives this pump to send power steering fluid towards the steering gear. 
  2. Electro-hydraulic steering is a hybrid between hydraulic and fully electric power steering systems. Instead of an engine-powered pump, an electrically driven pump moves the power steering fluid.
  3. Electric power-assisted steering (EPAS) uses an electric motor to augment the force that the driver exerts on the steering wheel.  Unlike the other two systems, EPAS does not use power steering fluid.

These different power steering systems have their own components; hence they can have different problems.  The steering wheel can then become heavy, jolty, or completely locked up, depending on the severity.

Hydraulic Power Steering Problems

Hydraulic power steering systems may malfunction or fail due to the following reasons:

  1. Clogged power steering rack: Dirt, fluid impurities, or failing gears and seals may cause the power steering rack to malfunction.
  2. Power steering fluid leak: The fluid may leak from the reservoir, the fluid lines, or other parts of the power steering system.
  3. Broken steering gear: The gear's teeth may get worn or broken through time and cause heavy or locked steering.
  4. Loose/slipping power steering belt: If this belt snaps or malfunctions, the power steering pump will not function.
  5. Bad power steering pump: This pump may go bad due to mechanical failure, dirt accumulation, or fluid loss.
  6. Failing linkages: Mechanical joints or links along the steering system may bind or lock up from corrosion or physical damage.

Check out this video about a malfunctioning power steering rack and how you can try to fix it with an automotive cleaning chemical.

Check out Trans Tune fluid system cleaner on Amazon.

The next video, in turn, will help you identify the tell-tale noises of a failing power steering pump. It usually sounds like a metallic whine during startup, and it gets louder when you turn the steering wheel.

Finally, the following video shows how failing joints in the steering system can cause heavy or even locked-up steering wheels.  Mechanical failures like this can happen even when you're driving the car.

Electro-Hydraulic Power Steering Problems

Because this power steering system is a hybrid, it can display most of the problems of hydraulic systems, except with the pump.  However, the electric pump and its wiring might malfunction.

Faulty wiring or failing electric pumps of electric-powered hydraulic systems will prevent the power steering fluid from assisting the driver's steering input.  This can make the steering very heavy.

A faulty engine control unit (ECU) can also present problems as this unit controls the operation of the electric pump.

Electric Power-Assisted Steering Problems (EPAS)

As a fully-electric system, EPAS does not rely on power steering fluid to assist the driver's steering input.  Instead, this system uses a motor either on the steering column or the steering rack to help turn the wheels.

Consequently, EPAS problems are electric as well as mechanical in nature.  These problems can arise in the electric motor, the torque sensor, the ECU, and other mechanical parts of the system.

How Do I Fix A Locked Steering Wheel?

Close-up young man driving car

Due to the anti-theft feature, any car owner can unlock a steering wheel as long as the locking. Many owners can even do temporary remedies like cleaning and jimmying the ignition cylinder.

However, if the steering wheel locks due to hydraulic, electrical, or mechanical problems in the steering system, an average driver may not be able to fix it. Refilling the power steering fluid reservoir may be the only exception.

Steering is one of the most important functions in controlling a vehicle. You can drive with a broken window, faulty air conditioning, or a dented door. However, you cannot drive with a locked steering wheel.

If you notice any tell-tale signs that your steering system is failing, then it's a good time to seek professional assistance.  Your dealership and your favorite mechanic might be your first options.

What Do You Do If Your Power Steering Goes Out While Driving?

A man's hand holds the steering wheel of a car.

Anti-theft steering wheel lock usually happens when the car is parked and the engine is off. However, steering system failures may happen even while you're driving.  This is indeed a dangerous and scary experience.

To prevent or minimize steering wheel failures, you should observe proper car maintenance. If you are not much of a car enthusiast, then you can just follow your dealership's preventive maintenance schedule.

However, if your steering wheel does lock by some unfortunate accident, you can avoid or minimize damage by following some reminders.

  1. Recognize your situation, but don't panic.
  2. Slow down, turn your hazard lights on, and alert other drivers that you have a problem. You may use your horn, voice, or hand signals. 
  3. Don't slam on the brakes. Stop gradually to prevent tailspins or rear-end collisions.

If your steering wheel is very heavy but still movable, try to drive the vehicle out of traffic and into the side of the road.  Once parked, turn the engine off and then back on to see if your steering wheel lightens up.

If your steering wheel locks up and it is impossible to drive to the side of the road, then you have no choice but to stop in the middle of the road.  Stay inside the vehicle to have more protection from oncoming vehicles.

Once You Stop Your Vehicle

In case you have a hydraulic or electro-hydraulic power steering system, you can check your reservoir to see if it needs a refill.  This may mean that you have a leak somewhere.  An extra bottle of power steering fluid would be handy.

Check out this best-selling power steering fluid on Amazon.

If the steering wheel lightens up, you may try driving to the nearest service station. However, it may be safer just to call for a tow truck in case the steering wheel locks up again.

If your steering wheel locks up completely, you can try wiggling the steering wheel and jimmying your keys in the ignition. You might just free up the wheel in case the problem lies in a faulty steering lock.  

However, even if you manage to unlock the wheel, you may be better off calling for a tow truck.  You just got out safely from a harrowing situation, so don't push your luck.

Wrapping Up

Close up view of female hands on steering wheel of electric car BMW iX3.

Steering wheels usually lock up because of anti-theft steering and ignition locking features. However, steering system components can also fail and make the steering wheel heavy, jolty, or even impossible to turn.

Thank you very much for reading. We hope we were able to help you understand how to solve problems with locked steering wheels.

If you would like to find more interesting reads about steering wheels, ignition locks, and other automotive topics, then do check out these great articles below.

My Honda Odyssey Key Is Stuck In The Ignition – What To Do?

Does Toyota Highlander Have Heated Steering Wheel?

How To Turn On High Beam Assist on Subaru Forester