You’re sitting down in your car, and no matter what you do, it just won’t start. Then, you notice your steering wheel is locked. So, now you’re thinking “What the hell happened, what am I going to do now?” First, stop panicking. A locked steering wheel, although annoying, is an easy fix.
If you want to find out why this happened to you and how to stop it from happening ever again — you’ve come to the right place. I’m also going to show you how to unlock your steering wheel, no matter what kind of car you have.
What Does a Steering Wheel Lock Do?
To start off, your steering wheel locking is usually a great thing. The locking system is one of the first lines of defense against thieves. If a thief somehow manages to unlock your car door and wants to make a quick getaway, your steering wheel will stop them from doing so.
However, it will do more than just protect your car from thieves. Have you ever thought about what happens when you park in a spot that is inclined? Well, even if you pulled your hand brake, the car still might roll away. Now, if your steering wheel locks while you’re parked on an incline, the chances are you’ll find your car just where you left it.
Your steering wheel locking is a hassle, I get it. However, the next time it locks, remember that it plays a crucial role in your car’s safety. So, now you’re wondering how this even happens in the first place. Well, let’s talk about it.
Why Does Your Steering Wheel Lock
Cars are complex machines and there are plenty of reasons why your steering wheel might get locked. First, let’s talk about the most common culprits.
1. Power Steering Pump
In case you didn’t know, a power steering pump is why you’re able to gently tilt your steering wheel and turn where you want. Most older cars don’t have a steering pump and every time you turn, you feel like you’re working out at the gym.
While they are a great addition to modern cars, they can also jam unexpectedly. If your engine turns off or stops working while you’re driving, so will your steering pump.
Another reason why they might jam is because of their valves and linkage. Both of these can get stuck due to debris or dirt that’s wedged inside of them.
Telltale Signs Your Power Steering Pump Is Locking Your Steering Wheel
There are two surefire ways you can know your steering pump stopped working:
- Squeaky noises — Have you noticed your car is squeaking every time you turn? Well, the noise is coming from inside the hood. If you hear squeaking coming from your car, it means your belt is under pressure and is about to break. The moment you hear any noise coming from your car, you should go see a mechanic.
- The steering wheel has a slow response — In addition to feeling stiff or making a funny noise, your steering wheel’s response can also be slow. For example, if you have to turn your steering wheel all the way to the right just to get it to move an inch, chances are — your steering pump is broken.
If you suspect it might be your steering pump that’s causing your steering wheel to lock, you should have a mechanic clean it or fix it.
2. Key Mechanism
Most people will tell you that you can fix a locked steering wheel by putting in your keys and starting your car. But, what happens if your key mechanism is what’s locking your steering wheel?
If your steering wheel won’t unlock even after you’ve put in the keys, it’s most likely due to a broken key mechanism. A faulty key mechanism can lock up your steering wheel if some dirt or debris gets stuck inside it.
Mechanics refer to this problem as “sudden lock up.” You can only imagine how dangerous it is to have a sudden lock up while you’re driving, especially at a higher speed.
If your key is resisting you when you try to start your car, you probably have a faulty key mechanism.
3. Sharp Turns
While, as a rule, you should avoid making sharp turns, that’s not always so easy to do. Not only will sharp turns lock your steering wheel, but they can also hurt your engine. Also, sharp turns can actually damage your transmission system and your power steering pump.
Avoid making any sharp turns as much as you can. They will not only stress you out, but they will also damage your car. If you absolutely have to do it, make sure you’ve lowered your driving speed to avoid harming yourself or your car.
4. Engine Control Unit (ECU)
The Engine Control Unit is what makes your engine run so smoothly. It controls different actuators on an engine with internal combustion and ensures optimal engine performance. As you can imagine, if your ECU breaks down for any reason, it can do a lot of damage to your car.
There are two ways the ECU can lock your steering wheel:
- The ECU gets a sensory problem, activating the steering lock mechanism. Once the mechanism is activated, your steering wheel gets locked.
- The ECU, for whatever reason, stops sending power to your Electronic Power Steering system. Again, when this happens, it will lock your steering wheel.
How to Unlock Your Steering Wheel
Every problem requires a unique solution. So, depending on why your steering wheel locked in the first place, there are a few things you can do to fix it.
1. Unlocking It with a Key
If your steering wheel got locked because of a sharp turn you made, you should first try inserting your key to fix it. First, try putting in your key and starting your car. If you can do that, the wheel should automatically unlock.
Also, if you feel some resistance when you go to put in your key, try applying light pressure. Make sure you’re being gentle when doing this. By applying too much pressure, you risk breaking your car key.
Furthermore, while you’re slowly turning your key, you should apply some pressure to the steering wheel. Don’t shake, jiggle or rock it, though.
Move your steering wheel in the opposite direction of how you’re turning your key. Moreover, make sure you’re turning the steering wheel and the key at the same time.
2. Replace the Ignition Lock Assembly
Even if you can’t unlock your steering wheel by staring the car, don’t worry, all is not lost. First, you’re going to have to remove your steering wheel column panels. Once you’ve removed the panels, you’ll be able to see the ignition lock cylinder.
Next, you’re going to have to remove that ignition lock cylinder. Once you’ve taken the cylinder off, replace it with a new one. Also, make sure to test your key with the new lock cylinder to ensure its working properly.
Finally, put the steering wheel column panels back in place.
Before you even take off your column panels, make sure to read your owner’s manual first. Not all cars are the same and your manual might tell you to do something different in your car.
3. Clean your Steering Wheel and Column
Like I’ve mentioned earlier, sometimes your steering wheel might get locked because there’s some debris or dirt stuck in your steering wheel column. If you know where to look, cleaning everything won’t take up much of your time.
However, if you’re not sure what the right way to clean your steering wheel is, you can check out this link for some tips and tricks. Also, once you’re done cleaning, make sure to lubricate your steering wheel column.
Some of my favorite products for lubricating the steering wheel column are:
- Genuine Honda Fluid Power Steering Fluid
- Lucas Oil 10008 Power Steering Fluid
- Pentosin CHF 11S Synthetic Hydraulic Fluid
Before you buy any steering fluid for your car, make sure it works for your car’s make, model, and year. Also, always check your car’s owner manual to see how to apply the fluid without damaging your steering wheel.
4. Replace the Power Steering Pump
So, you’ve heard the squeaking noises and you know what they mean — what’s next? Well, you should look into buying a new power pump to avoid having a locked steering wheel again. Now, I would only recommend doing this if you have some experience with car maintenance.
Replacing a power steering pump is a bit tricky and you’re going to need a lot of tools to pull it off. So, if you don’t feel comfortable doing it yourself, you can always go to a mechanic.
5. Go to a Mechanic
Some of these ways to fix your locked steering wheel are easier than others. However, almost all of them require some sort of knowledge about car repairs. If you want to avoid the hassle of repairing it yourself, you can go see a mechanic.
A mechanic can help you replace your ignition lock assembly or power steering pump. Not only that, but they can also clean your steering wheel and column. Most of these repairs are pretty routine and have them professionally fixed isn’t that expensive.
How to Prevent Your Steering Wheel From Locking Again
Do you want to make sure your steering wheel never locks up again? Well, there are a few things you can do to ensure a smooth and safe drive in the future.
1. Do Regular Checkups
Most manufacturers say you should service your car once a year. However, there are a few things you can check yourself once every few months. For example, you should check oil levels, belts, and tire pressure once a month. On the other hand, you should check your power steering and transmission fluid every three months.
2. Replace What’s Not Working
Of course, this sounds like a given, but it bears repeating. The first time your steering wheel locks up, check to find why it happened. Also, never ignore weird noises coming from under your hood.
If you can’t figure out what’s wrong, take the car to a mechanic. Replacing broken parts and cleaning your car properly is the key to a healthy vehicle.
3. Avoid Making Sharp Turns
Easier said than done, right? I get that sometimes you have to make a sharp turn. However, at least try avoiding them when you’re driving at high speeds. Not only will it lock up your steering wheel, but it’s also extremely dangerous.
Also, never pull on your steering wheel once you’ve turned your engine off. When you turn your car off and want to step out, don’t touch your steering wheel. By doing so, you’ll ensure it doesn’t lock when you try to start your car the next time.
The Bottom Line
So, now you know all of the reasons why your steering wheel got locked. As long as you take good care of your car, you can avoid most of these problems. Also, you can avoid locking the steering wheel by regularly servicing your car and doing check-ups.
If you want to unlock your steering wheel, always start by turning your car on first. Most of the times, this should fix any problems you might be having. However, if it still won’t unlock, try popping your hood to see what the problem might be.
Finally, every time you’re cleaning your car, clean the steering wheel column as well. It’s a five-minute job that will save you a lot of hassle in the future. Whatever you do — don’t start pulling on your steering wheel in different directions.
Not only will you fail to unlock your steering wheel, but you also might cause more damage to your steering wheel column and transmission. Remember, the more you take care of your car now, the happier you’ll be down the road.