Why Do Steering Wheels Lock? The Definitive Answer

Close up of the steering wheel and instrument cluster panel dashboard with the steering wheel turned and locked up

A steering wheel is one of the most important parts of your car. If you’re running into an issue with your steering wheel, you came to the right place. A dangerous and semi-common problem is a steering wheel that locks in position.

It’s normal for a steering wheel to lock when the key is out of the ignition for safety reasons. However, if the steering wheel is locking up in any other scenario, it’s either the result of a problem in your power steering system, a steering linkage failure, or an ignition lock that has failed. You should first troubleshoot these three areas in order to better understand the path forward. The solution typically involves replacing the broken piece or refilling your power steering fluid.

In this guide, I’m going to explain why steering wheels lock, and I’ll offer some solutions. If this happens to you, make sure you pull over as soon as possible and get a tow to your house or local mechanic.

What a Locked Steering Wheel Does

I’ll get into the causes in a second, I just want to describe what happens when your steering wheel locks. As you know, turning your steering wheel will turn your car’s wheels and allow you to move your massive vehicle.

When a steering wheel locks, you won’t be able to turn it. The wheel will be stuck in its current position, causing your car to perpetually go in whichever direction the wheel is facing.

Steering wheel column removed from the vehicle sitting on the workbench with the pump computer and column itself

The steering wheel uses linkages, valves, a pump, and fluid to successfully move your wheels. If any of these pieces become dislodged or defective, you won’t be able to control your steering wheel.

In the case of a faulty ignition lock, there’s an actual rod that goes through your steering wheel and prevents motion.

Regardless, all of these causes are mechanical blocks that you can’t workaround. They will physically keep your steering wheel firmly in place until you find the issue and resolve it. That’s why it’s so important to start troubleshooting your locked steering wheel as soon as possible.

Do Steering Wheels Actually Lock?

Yes, steering wheels really lock. It’s a great safety feature when the wheel locks intentionally, but it’s a hazard when it happens due to a mechanical failure.

Whenever you park your car and leave it, the wheel should lock. This ensures the wheels don’t change direction if you get rear-ended. That way, your car will go where you last pointed the wheel, which is the safest option.

Close up of the car's ignition switch with the lock word highlighted in red

It’s also a safety measure to keep criminals away. If your car is turned off and the wheel is moved, it will lock in position. Without placing your key in the ignition and turning it, the key will stay turned.

A criminal can’t get away with your car as easily since they won’t be able to turn the wheel. There are still ways to hotwire a modern car, but this locking feature will deter criminals.

Is There a Problem with a Locking Steering Wheel?

If your steering wheel locks mid-drive, there’s a big problem. Your steering wheel is the only way to turn your car and make it go in the direction you want it to.

This is even more dangerous as you imagine you’re driving at highway speeds. If you lose the ability to turn, there’s a high chance that you’ll crash into something.

Detailed illustration diagram showing the power steering system in a car both parallelogram and rack and pinion systems for automotive

Even though a locked steering wheel is a good thing before you start your car, it’s a big risk once your car is running.

If you notice your steering wheel is getting hard to turn at all, you shouldn’t press your luck. Start troubleshooting your vehicle immediately or have it towed right to a mechanic. If you wait too long, then the problem will only get worse.

Reasons Why a Steering Wheel Might Lock

There are a few different reasons why your wheel is locking at inopportune times. If your wheel is locking when it shouldn’t be, it’s likely due to one of the following reasons:

Your Power Steering Is Failing

Your car has a system that helps you turn the wheel, and it’s called power steering. It allows you to turn your wheel with ease. Comparatively, cars back in the 50s required a lot of elbow grease to get the wheel turned.

To give your tiny steering wheel enough power to turn your giant tires and move your car, you need some mechanical advantage. This is where power steering comes in.

Power steering pump for a car isolated against a white background
Power steering pump

Your system is made up of a belt, valves, and pump. If any of these components wear out or fail, your steering wheel will be considerably harder to move.

If you aren’t expecting a lack of power steering, it will feel like your wheel is locked.

Solution: It’s a difficult solution, so it’s probably best to leave this for a mechanic. To fix your power steering, you’ll first need to identify the component that broke. From there, you have to swap out the defective product for a functional one.

Power Steering Rack Failed

Within your steering system, a power steering rack is used to ultimately connect your steering wheel to your car’s axle. When you turn the wheel, this power steering rack is responsible for transporting the message across your car and actually turning your wheels.

Power steering rack for a car isolated against a white background

If this power steering rack fails, then your steering wheel will get jammed into position. In some cases, the wheel will move with tremendous force. Regardless, you should pull over as soon as possible. This isn’t something you can fix by continuing to drive it.

Solution: Start by safely pulling over as soon as possible. Get a tow to a local mechanic and explain that you suspect your steering linkage has failed. They will need to replace the linkage and perform an alignment to get your steering wheel centered and working again.

Low Power Steering Fluid

Earlier, I was talking about the power steering system. There’s actually another component of the system that can cause your steering wheel to lock: the power steering fluid.

When a mechanic “tops off your fluids”, this is likely one of the ones they’re checking.

The power steering fluid is a hydraulic fluid that keeps the system moving. Not to get too technical, the fluid helps convert mechanical power and gives you more leverage when you turn your wheel.

Close up of the power steering fluid reservoir

When the power steering fluid gets too low, then the whole system will stop working. As opposed to a failing steering system, low fluid won’t just lock up your wheel. Instead, it will randomly bind and get harder to turn while you drive.

If you notice that your wheel locks up more as you’re driving around a parking lot, it could simply be that your fluid is low.

Solution: Luckily, it’s easy to add more power steering fluid. Look for a labeled power steering cap towards one of the corners of your engine bay. Remove the cap and you’ll probably see a transparent plastic middle that tells you how much fluid you have. Wipe off the tube and note the color of the fluid. Grab fresh power steering fluid and add it to the reservoir until you hit the indicated level you need.

Ignition Lock Failed

What if your car is parked and you can’t get the steering wheel loose? This goes back to the safety and anti-theft measure that I described at the beginning of this guide.

When your key is removed, the steering wheel will lock thanks to the ignition lock. It won’t unlock until you put in your key and turn it.

One of the checks during starting your car is to ensure your key matches the key that was coded to your car. If it doesn’t, then the ignition lock will stay closed. This is a physical bolt that mechanically holds your steering wheel in position until your key’s “fingerprint” matches what your car is looking for.

If this ignition lock is on the fritz, it could fail to unlock your wheel even after the key is inserted.

ignition switch with ignition key
Ignition switch

Once the steering wheel is locked, there’s a lot of tension in this area. I’ve had cars in the past where the key wouldn’t turn unless I jiggled the steering wheel free first. I would suggest starting with this motion: grab your wheel with one hand and key with the other.

Move the steering wheel back and forth slightly with the one hand while you insert and turn the key with the other.

If your wheel stays locked intermittently as you try to start it, you might need to replace your ignition lock. This process gets tricky, so I would suggest reaching out to a professional.

Solution: Try wiggling your steering wheel while you insert and turn the key. If that doesn’t work, you’ll need to replace your ignition lock before you can start your car. Have your car towed to a local professional for them to replace the ignition lock.

Conclusion

I hope this guide helps clear things up about why a steering wheel can lock up and assists you in troubleshooting, should your vehicle have this problem. To reemphasize, this is a very dangerous problem to run into while driving.

For more car troubleshooting guides, explore my site. I also put together a list of car products I highly recommend.

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Ernest Martynyuk

An automotive enthusiast who's been tinkering with vehicles since I was 15-years old. Repairing automotive electronics has been my main job for over a decade now and have a passion for everything technical regarding cars.

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