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A loose steering wheel can spell trouble for any driver since it makes it difficult to determine the accurate position of the front wheels. Having little control over your wheels and driving with a non-responsive steering system can be dangerous during rush hour when highways are packed with vehicles. Driving also becomes riskier when driving down a winding road where you need to be one hundred percent in control of your car.

Steering wheels need to be both responsive and dependable. If you move your steering wheel more than one and a half inches and the tires refuse to move, then this means that you have a loose wheel on your hands. Most modern cars are designed with two different types of steering systems and these systems help the driver control the movement of his or her car. Cars, small trucks and SUVs have what is known as rack and pinion steering while larger vehicles are equipped with recirculating ball steering. These systems have components that eventually fail or become worn over time and this can lead to a loose steering wheel.

The common causes of excessive play in a steering wheel are listed below:

Damaged Pitman Arm

Worn pitman arms can also be the culprit behind loose steering wheels. This component forms a bridge between the steering rack and the steering box sector shaft. It also moves in a circular motion that causes the wheels to move right or left. A damaged pitman arm can wreak havoc on your steering and your car will not respond appropriately when your turn the wheel.

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Worn Tie Rods

The tires and the steering unit are connected via tie rods. These rods can be found in both recirculating as well as rack and pinion systems. A steering wheel will become loose if the tie rod becomes worn. When this component becomes worn, it becomes loose and develops excessive play. You will be able to feel this play in the steering and handling of your car. Worn tie rod ends can also cause front suspension problems and lead to excessive tire wear.

Bad or Failing Ball Joint

This important suspension component has a ball and socket design like the one found in human hips and is responsible for connecting the suspension system to the car tires and wheel. Some cars are equipped with upper and lower ball joints while others only use the latter. Irregular tire wear and banging sounds that can be heard while driving over uneven roads are symptoms of bad ball joints. Your steering wheel may also feel loose as a result.

Troubleshooting a Loose Steering Wheel

Issues with the suspension or steering unit can trigger excessive play in a steering wheel. Therefore, drivers should park their cars and get them inspected by a mechanic in the event of a loose steering wheel. There is nothing worse than losing control over your vehicle, and losing control means putting yourself and others in danger. The best option is to get your car looked at by a professional so he or she can identify the culprit behind this steering wheel issue.

  • The first thing the mechanic will do is raise the car and remove the wheels in order to access the steering components and suspension. All the above components will undergo inspection to determine their condition and whether they need to be replaced.
  • A damaged pitman arm will be removed from the track bar and replaced with a new one. Your car is then road tested for proper steering operation and to make sure that the new replacement is functioning normally. Your new pitman arm will require regular maintenance to prevent the car steering from faltering, especially if you happen to venture off-road with your vehicle.
  • If tie rods are the culprit, the mechanic will check each component for any exterior damage and will replace the worn rods with new ones. New tie rods will need adequate lubrication after installation.
  • If ball joints are causing all this havoc, the mechanic will remove the control arms in order to reach the damaged ball joint. This component will then be removed and replaced with a new one. Lubricating the new parts is necessary in order to guarantee their longevity.

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The mechanic may test drive your car to check for excessive play once the new components are in place and your car has been lowered off the jack stands.  Remember to always follow the service recommendations in your owner’s manual to avoid future steering issues and to prevent major components from breaking down and putting you in harm’s way while driving. Your safety should always come first.

Sources:

  1. How Car Steering Works – How Stuff Works
  2. Symptoms of a Bad or Failing Ball Joint (Front) – Your Mechanic

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