When Does Your Steering Wheel Vibrate?
The two most frequent causes of a shaky steering wheel are either warped brake rotors, which will cause your steering wheel to shake when you brake, or unbalanced tires, which will cause your steering wheel to shake when driving at high speeds.
There are other possible causes of a shaking steering wheel though. By thinking critically about how and when your steering wheel shakes, you can narrow down what the issue may be. Having a shaking steering wheel is incredibly frustrating, and it’s usually a symptom of a larger issue. By starting to figure out what the problem might be and preemptively looking for a solution, you’re already doing a great job of preventing a major mechanical malfunction.
The questions you should be asking yourself are if you notice the steering wheel vibration only at certain speeds or during certain actions.
Steering Wheel Shakes When You Brake
If your steering wheel shakes when you’re trying to stop your car, then the problem is most likely in your brakes.
A quick test to see if something is wrong with your brakes is to try braking to see if your car pulls to one side or another. If it does, then your brakes are the problem.
Most cars utilize a disc brake system. In a disc brake system, a brake rotor is attached directly to the wheel of your car. When you hit the brake pedal, the caliper squeezes either side of the rotor. Brake pads are the parts attached to the caliper that actually touch the rotor. By absorbing the majority of the damage, the brake pads exist to protect the caliper and rotor.
Most people grew up with disc brakes on their bicycles, and this works almost exactly the same way. The brake pads squeeze and the rotor either slows down or stops entirely based on the pressure applied, but over time, the pads wear down.
When most people think of a part of the brake that needs to be replaced, they think of the brake pad. Brake pads are designed to be replaceable, and it’s accepted that replacing them periodically is simply part of the cost of operating a vehicle.
Brake pads thinning can often be observed simply by looking at them. There will be several other symptoms of thin brake pads as well, such as a vibrating brake pedal or unusual sounds coming from your car when you apply the brakes. People have described these sounds as clicking, grinding, or screeching, and any of those sounds coming from your brakes is an indicator that something needs to be looked at.
Brake rotors are another part of the brake that can cause shaking if they become “out of the round.” Brake rotors can become warped due to excessive braking or sudden sharp stops at high speeds. Though rotors used to last a long time, they’re now made out of thinner materials that are easier to warp and harder to “true” when they fall out of balance. There are good reasons for this (we’ve stopped making brake rotors out of asbestos for example) but it is a cost of operating a vehicle that many don’t consider. Brake rotors wear out less frequently than pads, so if you’ve had your pads changed recently and it didn’t affect the shaking it is probably time to consider the possibility that your rotors may also be warped.
If your brake rotors or pads haven’t been checked out in a while, then these should be the first things you check if you notice your steering wheel shaking when you brake.
It’s important to get this issue looked at quickly. Having stability when you brake your vehicle is a practical safety concern. Also, functioning brakes are so important to the overall well-being of your car that if you don’t take care of the issue it’s nearly assured that other things will fall out of care and you’ll need to repair those as well.
Steering Wheel Shakes When Driving
The most probable cause of a shaking steering wheel when you’re driving (especially in the 50 miles-per-hour range) is a tire problem.
Did you purchase a new tire recently? If tires are improperly balanced, they can cause annoying shakes in your steering wheel.
New tires need to be balanced to ensure that the weight is being evenly distributed across the entire tire. Some wheels, for example, have heavier areas that need to be matched to the lighter areas of your tire and possibly matched with counterweights. Without this important process, it is likely that your car will have a few shakes and shimmies.
The counterweights that are used to balance tires can fall off over time which causes tires to become improperly balanced even if they’ve been in use for a while without any issues. Getting your tires rebalanced periodically is just as important as getting new tires balanced.
Most experts advise getting your tires balanced every 3,000-6,000 miles, or about as often as you need to change your oil. Doing both at the same time is a good way to make sure you remember to balance your tires.
Another tire-related problem that can cause a shaking steering wheel is misalignment. Misalignment is easy to check for, you just need to look at the tread of your tires. If there are areas that are showing significantly more wear and tear then others than it is likely that your wheels are out of alignment and will need to be realigned.
Misalignment is frequently caused by time but is also dependent on how you drive and where you drive. If you frequently hit potholes, curbs, railroad tracks, or have a habit of flying over speed bumps then you can count on needing to realign your tires more frequently.
Misaligned tires are also more likely to pull, so if you notice your car pulling when you’re driving and not when you’re braking, then it’s probably time for a tire alignment.
Another part of your car’s braking apparatus that can cause a shimmy in your steering wheel is if your brake caliper sticks on. This is the only part of the brake where the shaking will actually be worse when driving at high speeds versus when braking. Your car will also smell like burning, which should always be an indicator that something is very wrong.
Brake calipers sticking is pretty uncommon, and most of the time it’s either caused by debris or a mistake during the installation of a brake pad or rotor replacement. If this problem is debris-related a simple cleaning should be sufficient, otherwise you’ll need to get it to a shop.
Steering Wheel Shakes Even When Driving Slowly
If your steering wheel shakes even when driving at low speeds, it’s possible that the issue is in the suspension of the car.
Most of the parts of your suspension should be clearly visible when your car is parked, and you can check for issues with them using only a flashlight.
Suspension issues are usually easy to notice, even for people who are very inexperienced with car mechanics. If you see cuts or frays, then there is probably an issue. You can also use your hands to try to move parts to see if they’ve become loose. Unless you’re unusually strong and really yanking at your suspension, you won’t damage it more than it already is.
Suspension issues usually cause steering wheels to shake as soon as the car starts to move. Even at low speeds, the suspension can cause shimmying. Bushings, in particular, will cause shaking at low speeds, and because they aren’t one of the first few things people think of in association with shaking steering wheels they can escape notice for a while.
Steering Wheel Shakes when Turning
Though it is one of the least likely causes of a shaking steering wheel if your car’s steering wheel predominantly shakes when you are turning the vehicle, then it is possible that you have a loose wheel bearing.
Wheel bearings, much like brake pads, need to be changed regularly as part of the standard maintenance of a car.
There are actually several symptoms of a bad wheel bearing. When we say that a “wheel bearing is bad,” usually what we mean is that it has lost lubricity and no longer turns easily. Without lubrication, the wheel bearing adds undo friction to the inside of your wheel housing and can even cause the wheel hub to fall off the vehicle. Certainly not something you want to happen while you’re trying to drive!
You can check wheel bearings yourself if you have a jack.
First, you’ll need to jack up your car’s front wheel. Then, put both hands on the wheel, just like you would with a steering wheel. Push in and then pull out. If you hear a clunking sound or the wheel moves loosely than you are most likely dealing with a bad wheel bearing and will need to replace it.
Unlike almost every other cause on this list, a steering wheel that shakes because of a bad wheel bearing will shake during turning more than at any other time.
Regardless of why your steering wheel is shaking, it’s most likely caused by a problem that’s going to get worse over time. Whether you choose to check your car yourself to find and address the issue or take your car to a trusted mechanic, hopefully noticing when the shaking is the worst will help you to narrow down the issue and get it fixed before it causes additional problems in your car.
Observing the way your car acts is one of the best ways to make sure you're addressing potential problems quickly and before they become costly.