Symptoms of a Bad Wheel Bearing — Is It Safe to Continue Driving?

If you’ve never had a wheel bearing die on you while you were driving, consider yourself lucky. Those of you who have, know what I’m talking about.

In an instant, you go from driving around normally to shaking uncontrollably. The first time I had my wheel bearing go bad, I seriously thought my axle broke.

The ability to quickly and correctly determine what suddenly went wrong with your car and react accordingly is a must when you’re a driver. Fortunately, most cars have a computer fault system which will either warn you of danger or even stop the car altogether, depending on the severity of the problem.

In the following couple of paragraphs, we’ll go through the major symptoms of a bad wheel bearing, and explore the most frequently asked question on the topic — is it safe to continue driving?

What are wheel bearing and what do they do?

A Detailed Look at Wheel Bearings

In order to recognize a broken wheel bearing, you must first know what a bearing is and what it does.

A bearing is a connecting element between two surfaces which enables some kind of motion between the two. Its function is to eliminate any other kind of motion except for the desired one. Additionally, it reduces the friction of the motion. A wheel bearing connects the wheel to the car’s axle.

We can categorize bearings by two different criteria — the type of motion and the type of bearing. When it comes to the type of motion, we can divide bearings into four categories:

  • Radial Bearings

Radial bearings are used to facilitate rotation. For example, the wheel bearings in a car are radial bearings.

  • Linear Bearings

Linear bearings facilitate linear or sliding motion. You can most commonly find them in drawers.

  • Spherical bearings

Spherical bearings facilitate ball rotation in all three axes. They are more commonly known as ball-and-socket joints.

  • Hinges

Hinges provide limited radial rotation up to 360 degrees. You can easily find them in doors and windows.

Additionally, you can categorize bearings by their design:

  • Roller bearings

Roller bearings use a set of cylinders, flat or tapered, radially dispersed between two rings in order to reduce friction.

  • Ball bearings

Ball bearings use spherical rollers in order to minimize the contact between the surfaces and greatly reduce friction. Wheel bearings are usually ball bearings, and they have an extremely long lifespan.

  • Fluid bearings

Fluid bearings use fluids such as pressurized air, gas, or oil, in order to eliminate contact between the rolling surfaces, thereby eliminating friction.

  • Magnetic bearings

Magnetic bearings use a magnetic field for the same purpose as the fluid in fluid bearings, eliminating physical contact between the two surfaces.

Checking rear or front wheel bearin

What Are The Symptoms of a Bad Wheel Bearing?

When we say that a wheel bearing has broken down, what we mean is that the bearing is either starting to lose its friction-reducing properties, or it’s actually increasing the friction between the wheel and the axis. In most cases, you’ll only have one wheel bearing die on you at a time.

The increased friction results in vibration, which you can both feel and hear in most cases. The noise is very specific, something between a hum and a grind. It can vary depending on the type of the car. You can check out what it sounds like in this video:

The vibration and increased friction also result in significant changes in your ride. Your car will start to steer itself to one side, and you’ll probably have to correct your steering. Additionally, your steering wheel will start to vibrate. Make sure you have a good grip, even though your hands will probably get sweaty.

As far as your dashboard is concerned, your ABS or ESP light will probably turn on. It means that your car detected one wheel was moving at a different speed than others. Furthermore, the car uses the brakes on the other wheels to provide balance. You might feel a slight jerk as the system is trying to keep you on the road.

Keep in mind that all of the symptoms I just mentioned greatly differ in intensity depending on a multitude of different factors. For starters, you probably won’t feel anything until you get in second or third gear. As you speed up, you can feel the vibrations going stronger.

On the other hand, the position of the wheel also plays a large role in how you feel the vibrations. As you turn, you might feel bumping or grinding as the wheel bearing bends with the turn.

Can I Go Back on the Road with a Bad Wheel Bearing?

Do you ever get the feeling that your car waits for the perfect opportunity to break down? I don’t know about you, but I’ve had my share of middle-of-nowhere DIY mechanic moments. Unfortunately, you can’t change out a bad wheel bearing in the middle of the road. In fact, you almost certainly have to go to a mechanic (you need a press).

Additionally, it’ll probably take some time for you to figure out it’s the wheel bearing that’s gone wrong. In most cases, you’ll think there’s something wrong with the tire. You might think it’s gone off-balance. To be sure, try driving slowly to see if the problem remains. If it quiets down when you slow down, it’s the wheel bearing.

Back to the point. The question was, can you drive your car with a bad wheel bearing? To be honest, yes, you most likely can. For a while, at least.

Should you? Probably not, especially if you’re not an experienced driver. Even if you are, things may go beyond the point of your control, no matter how good of a driver you are.

A bad wheel bearing slightly blocks the movement of one wheel, slightly destabilizing the car. You may feel like the brake on that wheel is being just slightly pressed. In most cases, you or the car can compensate for that destabilization and keep you straight.

However, there is a significant chance of the wheel bearing suddenly seizing up. It would be like slamming the brakes on one wheel only. The car will spiral out of control, endangering the driver, the passengers, and everyone nearby. Because of this chance, driving with a bad wheel bearing is not recommended.

If you really must, go as slowly as possible, turn on your hazard lights, and be careful.

Useful Tips for Dealing with Wheel Bearings

Even if you already had the misfortune of having to deal with a bad wheel bearing in the past, you must not underestimate your situation. It might seem manageable at first, but it can lead to a terrible accident, not to mention cause damage to your car. Even though the price may seem steep for such a small piece, the labor put into replacing a wheel bearing is not insignificant.

As far as reparation is concerned, you have an alternative solution. If your wheel hub is also near its due, you may be better off with replacing the entire system, depending on your car. The labor would cost much less than only replacing the bearing itself.

Additionally, if you need some other work around the wheels done, now’s the time. Brakes, wheels, tires, suspension — the mechanic will have access to all of them while replacing your wheel bearing. Therefore, you can save up on labor cost.

If you’ve already jacked your car up on the side of the road thinking that it was a tire problem, you can easily verify if it’s a problem with the bearing instead. Simply spin the wheel freely and look for a rattling noise. The noise will confirm that it’s a bad wheel bearing.

The Bottom Line

Having a wheel bearing die on you is one of the worst minor things that can happen to your car. The main issue with a bad wheel bearing is that people underestimate the problem. They learn to drive with it, and 500 miles later their car spins out of control and crashes into a tree (or worse).

In addition, driving with a bad wheel bearing puts unnecessary stress on various other components in your car. For example, the wheel hub can get overheated, which can lead to its failure as well. Additionally, the transmission can also get worn out much faster. In the most catastrophic scenario, your wheel will simply fall off your car.

To ensure everyone’s safety as best as you can, you should react immediately. As soon as you determine your wheel bearing is dead, pull over to the side of the road. Call AAA, report the breakdown and wait for the towing service.

If you absolutely, positively can’t reach a towing service, be extremely careful. Turn on your hazard lights, don’t go above 30mph, and take extra precaution when turning. Drive either to the nearest mechanic or to the nearest tow service.

I hope you learned a thing or two reading this, and I wish you safe travels.

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