When Your Car Breaks Down
Steering Failure

Handling Steering Failure: Power Steering, Common Causes & What To Do

Updated Dec. 31, 2020

Total steering failure is rare but possible. If this type of steering failure occurs, it is likely to happen suddenly. You must know what action to take to bring the vehicle safely to a stop. When steering fails completely, the driver will have absolutely no directional control over the vehicle. Fortunately, the balance of the car should keep it traveling on a straight path.

Partial steering failure is far more common and thankfully, easier to handle. This type of steering problem may manifest as extremely “heavy” steering, where the vehicle becomes difficult to maneuver. You could also experience unbalanced steering, which pulls the car to one side. No matter what the nature of your steering failure, you must stop as soon as safely possible. If some steering control remains, drivers should attempt to pull over when the vehicle has slowed.

Power steering failure

Power steering failure often accompanies other mechanical problems. If your engine dies, your power steering will fail. It can also be caused by failure of individual system components, such as fluid leaks or a pump malfunction. When your power steering fails you will still be able to steer the vehicle, though it will require much more strength and effort.

If power steering failure is accompanied by power-brake failure, you will have to push down hard on the brake pedal to slow the vehicle. Do not panic if your power steering cuts out, simply ease off the accelerator and gently steer the vehicle to the side of the road.

How to handle steering failure

As with all driving emergencies, your first response should be to take a breath and focus on not losing your cool. Allowing yourself to panic will only worsen the situation. When you notice your steering is heavy or unresponsive, your aim should be to slow down gradually. Do not slam on the brakes. Activate your hazard lights to warn other drivers that you are experiencing difficulties, then follow the steps below:

  1. 1

    Begin deceleration by easing your foot off the gas pedal.
    Maintaining control of your vehicle will be easier at a slower speed.

  2. 2

    Activate your hazard lights.
    This will warn other road users that you are experiencing a problem.

  3. 3

    If you are experiencing partial steering loss or power steering loss, you may attempt to steer your vehicle off the roadside once your vehicle has slowed to around 30mph. If necessary, you may do so sooner to avoid a collision.

  4. 4

    Ideally, you should not brake until the vehicle has slowed considerably and is almost at a complete stop. If you must brake sooner, apply pressure to the brake pedal gradually and be aware that braking may be tougher than usual.

  5. 5

    If you have experienced total steering failure, you must stop the vehicle without pulling over.
    The key to doing this safely is to slow-down as gradually as possible, while activating your hazard lights. This will give other drivers enough time to react and avoid your vehicle.

Symptoms of steering failure

Unlike other mechanical failures, problems with your steering will usually become apparent before a serious failure occurs. When you notice something odd about your steering, get your car checked out straight away.

Too much free movement in the steering wheel could indicate a problem, particularly if this surplus movement has developed over time. Be sure to get your car serviced regularly and if you have power steering, check the fluid levels every so often. Here are some other warning signs to watch out for:

  • Difficult or “heavy” steering.
  • A whining or screeching noise coming from the steering column, particularly on hard turns.
  • Vibration in the steering wheel.
  • Your vehicle wanders slightly off course even when steering straight ahead.

Causes of steering failure

Total steering failure whereby the steering becomes completely unresponsive can only be caused by a break or disconnection between the steering wheel and the car’s wheels. This is more likely to happen in an older vehicle that is susceptible to extreme mechanical malfunctions.

When problems arise with hydraulic power steering systems, a fluid leak or pump malfunction is usually to blame. A slow leak in your power steering hydraulics will present as a gradual stiffening of the steering and a progressive whining noise in the steering column. In a serious leak, steering loss will occur with less warning.

Electronic power steering (EPS) systems do not use fluid. Malfunctions in this type of system are less common, but still possible. Driving on bumpy roads or hitting damaged road at high-speed can easily damage an EPS system. If you suspect a problem with your car’s steering is developing, avoid driving until you can get it checked out by a mechanic.

Steering wheel lock

Does your vehicle have a steering lock device? If so, you must never turn the ignition to the “lock” setting while the vehicle is still moving. This will lock the steering and you will be unable to maneuver. Crashes as a result of accidental steering lock activation are more common than you may think.

Jammed steering lock

If your steering lock jams due to a mechanical malfunction, your wheel will lock-up and steering control will be lost entirely. Sometimes, a jammed steering lock can be rectified by gently shifting the wheel from side to side until it releases. Generally, steering lock jams are caused by excessive load on the steering. You may be able to fix this by:

  • Removing your foot from the gas pedal if the vehicle is moving. Allowing the vehicle to roll should lessen the load on the steering and release the lock.
  • If the vehicle is stationary or you have brought it to a stop using the above guidance, jack up the front of the car to lift pressure off the steering.

If this does not work or you are not equipped to try these fixes yourself, it is time to call in a certified mechanic!

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