My Steering Wheel Shakes When I'm Driving; What's Wrong?

Jack R. Nerad | Oct 29, 2020

So, there you are, cruising down the highway listening to a podcast or your favorite music, and you notice that something is wrong with your car. The source might not be obvious at first, but as you drive, you realize that the steering wheel is shaking as you make your way down the road. You hope it is just because the pavement is poorly maintained, but then the shaking persists even when you're on a stretch of smooth asphalt. That's when you say to yourself, "My steering wheel shakes when I'm driving. What's wrong?"

steering wheel is shaking

We wish we had a simple answer for you, but, as you know, a car is not a simple machine, nor do we live in a simple world. There are many possible causes for a shaking steering wheel, and they range from not too bad to borderline life-threatening. You'll need to address any of them because, like wayward children, even the minor problems can devolve into serious issues if left unattended.

The good news is that virtually all steering wheel vibration problems are relatively easy to diagnose because they are common. One big clue that can help in the diagnosis is what you are doing when the vibration occurs. Does the steering wheel vibration happen when you drive straight at normal speed, when you are turning, or when you are using the brakes to slow to a stop?

My Steering Wheel is Shaking at Normal Speeds

If your steering wheel shakes when you drive in a straight line, the most likely cause is a tire or wheel problem. One of your tires might have picked up a nail, and the resulting slow leak is causing a disturbance. Perhaps one of the wheel weights used to balance your tire on its wheel has flown off, resulting in an unsettling vibration. In both instances, your entire vehicle will likely be shaking even though you feel the pulsation through the steering wheel.

Another problem that could cause steering wheel shake is poor wheel alignment. Hitting a pothole or running into a parking curb can knock your wheels out of alignment, which means they are aiming at slightly different angles. This results in poor directional stability, pulling to the left or right, and, perhaps, steering wheel "judder."

The fixes for these problems are self-evident. If a tire is low and/or leaking air, repair or replace it and inflate all of your tires to the recommended inflation pressure. If a wheel weight is lost, re-balance your wheels, adding wheel weights where necessary. And if your car is misaligned, have the wheels realigned by a professional.

My Steering Wheel is Shaking While Turning

Should your car's steering wheel shake while you are turning or cornering, the most probable cause is a bad wheel bearing. The standard wheel bearings on a vehicle will last anywhere from 75,000 to 150,000 miles. Some wheel bearing assemblies are factory sealed, which means you cannot service them. If they fail, you must replace them. Others can be serviced, greased, and re-sealed as necessary. Servicing or replacing faulty wheel bearings should solve the steering wheel shimmy or wobble when turning a vast majority of the time.

Another problem that could cause shaking through the steering column is a worn tie rod. A tie rod links your car's steering knuckle to the steering rack. If you find that your steering wheel shakes and your steering capabilities seem weak when you are cornering, the tie rod end is likely worn, and it needs to be serviced or replaced.

My Steering Wheel is Shaking When Stopping

If your steering wheel shakes when you're trying to stop your car, it doesn't take a team of forensic scientists to determine the problem is most likely your brakes. Several malfunctions in the brake system can cause these issues.

Today's cars typically use disc brakes that consist of a disc that is attached to each wheel. Brake calipers apply the brake pads to the disc as you step on the brake pedal. In this kind of system, the disc (or rotor) can go "out of round," warp, or wear thin. The brake pads may also wear out or wear unevenly. Or, the brake calipers can stick, putting the pads in contact with the rotor when they shouldn't be. Each of these instances can manifest itself in a steering wheel shake.

If you apply the brakes and the car "pulls" left or right instead of stopping in a straight line, there is a good chance that you have a malfunctioning brake. Replacing the brake pads is probably the simplest of these problems to fix. Warped and damaged rotors must be machined to trueness or replaced, and a malfunctioning brake caliper should be serviced or replaced. All are jobs for professional technicians.

The ability to stop your car swiftly, safely, and surely is critical to your overall safety when driving. With this in mind, you should look at a shaking steering wheel as an early warning signal of a problem that needs to be addressed sooner rather than later. The failure to heed that warning could result in something you'll regret forever.

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