What Causes the Steering Wheel to Lock Up?

by Charles GreenUpdated July 11, 2023

Losing control of your car's steering is a terrifying experience, one that can lead to a crash with horrific consequences. If this happens to you, then you must try to bring your vehicle to a stop at once and determine the cause of steering wheel lock-up before you drive your car again. There are a number of reasons why your car's steering has suddenly locked up including low power steering fluid, a faulty lock cylinder, or low car battery. Here’s an exploration of some common causes:

Power Steering Pump

Most cars today have a power steering system with a pump utilized to help turn your steering wheel with ease. That pump contains valves as well as power steering linkage, either of which could have gotten stuck due to road debris getting wedged inside of it and caused steering linkage failure. The powder steering fluid that controls your car’s steering wheel could have a low fluid level which could cause a los of lubrication and a lack of power. Have your auto mechanic check your car's entire front end to determine the cause.

Key Mechanism

Not every steering wheel problem occurs when you have the transmission engaged and are heading down the road. Sometimes, drivers report that their steering wheel stays locked even after inserting the key into the ignition. When that happens, the car probably cannot be started let alone driven. More than likely the key assembly has worn out and needs to be replaced or an anti-theft feature is being initiated. However, before calling your auto mechanic, try to move the wheels to the left and to the right as sometimes the steering column "catches," a problem that can be resolved if you jiggle the wheel. You can also try using your spare key in case it’s a problem with your key and not the car ignition in the automotive lock mechanism itself. If that doesn’t work, you will need to take your car into the mechanic or dealership to discuss common causes for this ignition switch failure and so they can fix your ignition lock or ignition key.

Lock Pin

General Motors issued a pair of recalls for the C5 Chevrolet Corvette (1997-2004 models) due to problems with locked steering. In addition to being locked while starting, owners complained that in some cases their cars could be driven but with no control of steering. This problem is due to a lock pin that fails to withdraw fully, allowing contact between the pin and lock plate. Visit the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA ) website (see Resources) for information about recalls #04006B and #04006C or call your Chevrolet dealer.


While the three causes mentioned here are among the top common reasons why a steering wheel may lock up, there could be other reasons. Contact an auto mechanic for assistance, or if you are handy with repairs, consult a Haynes or Chilton repair manual for guidance. In modern cars, there are safety features in place that help keep us safe, and a power steering rack is one of them.

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