Cars can't speak, but they do tell us when something is wrong. If your steering wheel shakes like a dog about to go on a neighborhood walk, that's a common sign that something in the vehicle needs your attention. A shaky steering wheel vibration usually isn't too hard or expensive to fix, but it could become a serious safety issue if you don't get to it right now. Have a look at all the potential problems with a shaking steering wheel; we won't steer you wrong.
Steering wheel | Sindre Strøm
Reasons Your Steering Wheel Shakes
Maybe you only notice the car shaking while driving when you use the brakes, or perhaps it started all of a sudden after hitting a pothole or you notice the shake increases with vehicle speed. That probably elicits a groan and a mumbled, "Great, why is my car shaking now?" Unfortunately, there are several reasons you could feel a minor vibration in the steering wheel or experience a massive shake. Fortunately, we've narrowed it down for you. Here's what is likely happening.
- Wheel out of balance - Think of a wheel spinning as you drive like a washing machine drum on the spin cycle. When you've got sheets piled on one side of the washing machine, you're going to hear and feel it as the unbalanced load bangs around inside the machine. The same physics happens with an unbalanced wheel as you drive. If the car vibrates at high speed, this is likely the culprit.
- Tire problems - Tires are usually consistently round even as they slowly wear out. However, tires can cause vibrations when the structure of the tire takes damage, either from excess wear or road debris. This can cause a flat spot, a bubble-looking bulge in the tire or a missing chunk of tread, causing a disruptive thump and steering wheel shake every time it goes around. If the car shakes when accelerating, increasing with tire rotations, you've likely found the problem.
- Warped Rotors - Why does my car shake when I brake? Here's the thing: brakes don't mind getting hot until they get overheated. When brakes overheat, let's say towing a trailer down a steep grade for several miles, the built-up heat can cause the brake rotors to warp. They'll look fine visually, but if your car shakes when braking with a pulsing vibration in the brake pedal and steering wheel, you need new rotors.
- Imperfect roads - If your local roads are about as smooth as the Himalayas, you're going to notice some vibration in the steering wheel. All those bumps travel through the suspension and steering rack up to the steering wheel. If the problem goes away as soon as you get to a better section of road, count your issue as resolved.
- Lug nuts not properly tightened - We don't judge, but maybe your friend forgot to tighten the lug nuts last time you rotated the tires. This means the wheel isn't sitting flat against the hub, and it'll shake and wobble as much as clearance allows.
- Alignment - Vehicle alignment determines how straight the wheels are in relation to the vehicle body and the other wheels. A misalignment causes the wheels to slightly pull against each other, causing a noticeable shake you can feel in the steering wheel.
- Failed wheel bearing - Maybe you ignored the growling/whining sound coming from the wheel or perhaps this car is new to you. Either way, a failed wheel bearing gives you some clear signs, including a steering wheel vibration or the car shaking at high speed due to the wheel wobbling left and right as you drive.
- Worn-out ball joints - This one is similar to the failed wheel bearing since it takes place right behind the steering knuckle. When a ball joint fails, it becomes loose, allowing the wheel to wobble back and forth while driving. You will feel the vibration in the steering wheel, but will have to do some troubleshooting for an accurate fix.
How do you Fix a Shaking Steering Wheel?
Checking under a vehicle | Kevin Bidwell
Let's fix that shaking steering wheel. After finding out the cause behind the symptom, here's what you can do about it.
- Wheel out of balance - A wheel balancer isn't in most DIY garages, so this is another one that is incredibly quick and painless to hire out to your local tire shop for around $15-$30 per wheel.
- Tire problems - Simply put, a tire bulge means you need a new tire. Tread can sometimes be repaired with a patch, but a damaged carcass (the internal structure) means the tire is going to fail soon — and possibly very suddenly — without any way to reliably repair it. There's no way around it; buy a new tire.
- Warped Rotors - You can fix warped rotors by swapping them out for new ones. Resurfacing is sometimes an option, but usually not worth the time and expense for a shorter rotor life. Rotors are wear items that should be replaced on the proper schedule, so change them out yourself in about an hour, along with some new brake pads.
- Imperfect roads - For rough roads, there's not much you can do. Look for an alternate route.
- Lug nuts not properly tightened - Lug nuts are simple to tighten. Grab a torque wrench, check for the proper lug nut torque in the owner's manual, repair manual or online, and torque each nut to spec. Don't have a torque wrench? Advance offers free loaner tools with deposit.
- Alignment - Is your ride also pulling to one side or the other as you drive? Have a hard look at the alignment. While it's technically possible to perform this task at home with some tools and geometry, it's super fast and affordable to let the pros handle it.
- Failed wheel bearing - A failed wheel bearing on a modern daily driver needs to be replaced, as you can't rebuild it yourself like a brake caliper. Older cars will have you replace the individual bearings, but most vehicles from the rad era and newer have hub assemblies that you'll swap out. It's a bit pricier, but much easier and faster.
- Worn-out ball joints - Ball joints are critical parts of the steering linkage, but they're also really affordable, and replacing ball joints is totally doable for the DIYer. There is no other solution here, as an alignment or grease won't help the ball joints stop shimmying.
Remember to head in for an alignment after you replace steering or suspension components. Your mechanical issue could be resolved, but now the camber/caster/toe is incorrect, causing increased fuel use, tire wear and unpredictable handling. It's a safety issue that must be addressed as the final step.
Is it Safe to Drive with a Shaking Steering Wheel?
If you have been driving with a shaking steering wheel for a little while and think there are no problems with letting it continue to shake, have a seat. This symptom is entirely dependent on the cause, but generally, you will want to get a shaking steering wheel diagnosed and fixed. Issues like an alignment are potentially dangerous and can also increase fuel consumption. A tire problem could cause a blowout on the highway, and a failing ball joint could entirely let go, leading to loss of control. If your steering wheel shakes, it's time to fix it.
Have you ever experienced that annoying shaking steering wheel while driving? Let us know how you solved it in the comments below.