Drivers of a certain age will remember the gaming revolution that was the Rumble Pak, an optional add-on to a popular video game controller that enhanced the experience by providing a little shake in response to the action on screen. The feature was particularly useful in racing titles, where you’d be met with a little rumble every time you took damage, hit a curb, or went off-road. The “force feedback” technology was about full immersion, adding a tactile sensation to complement the audio and visual action on screen. While this might seem like a novelty for the gaming set, the truth is that your car’s controller — that is, the steering wheel — is no different.
In ideal conditions, your steering wheel is going to be just as stationary as those pre-Rumble Pak controllers, but when things start to go wrong, you might be met with some tell-tale rumble, shakes, and jitters that let you know something needs your immediate attention. These steering wheel shakes come in all shapes, sizes, and levels of intensity, and finding the root of the problem isn’t always the easiest task. Let’s look at some of the most common causes of a shaky steering wheel, explore some potential fixes, and discover how to leave that rumbling controller behind once and for all.
For those who skipped Auto Shop 101, your brake rotors are metal discs that, in conjunction with your brake pads and calipers, help to bring the vehicle to a stop every time you step on the brakes. Both the brake pads and rotors wear down over time and will eventually need replacement, though the cast iron rotors typically last twice as long as pads. As brake rotors start to age, the intense heat caused by braking can cause the cast iron to become a little more malleable, leading them to develop high and low spots as the metal disc starts to lose some of its shape.
As this issue grows, you might start to notice a vibrating sensation in your steering wheel when you go to step on the brakes as the pads try to make contact with the uneven rotor surface. If the problem is caught early enough, the brake rotors can potentially be resurfaced, but in most cases, you’ll be looking at a wholesale replacement.
Many experts recommend that the brake rotors and pads be replaced at the same time. While it might seem like a waste to discard a well-functioning set of rotors just because your pads are on their way out, simultaneous replacement offers decidedly better braking performance. Slamming on the brakes while moving at high speeds is one of the main causes of warped brake rotors, so if you’re looking to avoid a replacement, try to take a more gradual approach to braking.
If, on the other hand, you just had your brake rotors replaced and find yourself suffering from the shakes, it could be a sign of improper installation. Take your vehicle back to the shop that installed the rotors and have them take a second look. It could be as simple as an improperly seated rotor, but that’s one problem you would rather discover on a mechanic’s lift than while trying to brake at highway speeds.
As the only part of your vehicle that actually makes contact with the road, your tires can have a big effect on the overall driving experience. If your steering wheel develops a wobble or shake, improperly balanced, aligned, or inflated tires are often some of the main culprits. Even the smallest imperfection can become a noticeable issue as it’s amplified throughout the steering system, resulting in a steering wheel that feels attached to a washer machine on its spin cycle. These tire-related shakes tend to manifest at higher speeds — around 50 mph or faster — but might also become less noticeable once you climb into the 70-80 mph range.
In the best-case scenario, you’re looking at nothing more than improperly inflated tires, which, due to being over- or under-inflated, don’t roll as smoothly as they should. If all four tires fall within the expected PSI, the next step is to check in on the tread itself. Uneven tire wear can create flat spots, bumps, and other imperfections that can easily result in a shaky steering wheel, which is why regular tire rotation is so important.
This uneven wear can lead to a balance issue as the wobbly tires start to mess with the suspension and axle, throwing the system out of whack and causing the steering wheel to shudder in your hands. Simply switching each tire’s location on the vehicle can go a long way in extending tread life, ensuring all the tires wear evenly, and keeping them true.
Improper tire alignment is another factor that can lead to a vibrating steering wheel, as the wear-and-tear of everyday driving causes the tires to skew at unpredictable angles. This lack of alignment will lead to some uneven wear, which, as we’ve discussed, is never good news regarding your tires. If you’re looking to avoid tire-related issues that impact steering, aim to get your tires balanced every 12,000 miles and aligned every two to three years. The average tire lasts between 60,000 and 75,000 miles, which should serve most drivers for around four to five years.
Suspension-related issues are another common cause of steering wheel vibration. “Suspension” is really a catch-all term to describe the shock absorbers, coils, springs, joints, and bushings that keep your vehicle riding smooth, so it doesn’t describe a particular component so much as a comprehensive system. When one of these parts breaks or wears down, the effects can be noticed throughout the steering system, resulting in alarming vibrations at higher speeds, or even total loss of steering.
In older vehicles, it’s usually a ball joint or tie rod that’s the first to go, but the issue can be difficult to diagnose, especially for less experienced at-home mechanics. If you suspect a suspension-related issue, it’s always best to let the experts look at any repairs that will likely be outside the D.I.Y.-ers wheelhouse. Suspension issues aren’t always obvious at first and can initially manifest as nothing more than a weird noise or a little extra play in the steering wheel itself, but knowing what to look for can help you to head off a minor issue before it becomes an expensive repair.
Your tires aren’t the only part of your vehicle that needs to be regularly balanced. Between bumps, potholes, stop-and-go driving, and emergency braking, it’s all too easy to let your axle fall out of balance. Today’s vehicles are often designed with half-shaft axles that will emit a distinctive, rhythmic “ticking” sound when you go to turn the steering wheel. This ticking can be the sign of a poorly balanced axle and, if left untreated, can escalate into full-blown shaking in the steering wheel or even throughout the entire vehicle. An axle alignment is a regular part of every wheel alignment, so if you notice some strange noises or feel some rhythmic vibrations through your steering wheel, you may be overdue for an appointment with your local tire shop.
Brake calipers are essentially hydraulically activated clamps that bring your brake pads in contact with the rotor to slow your vehicle to a stop. While not the most common cause, brake calipers can also contribute to a shaky steering wheel. This happens when your brake calipers become seized or stuck, locking into place and preventing the pads from releasing. As you might expect, this can have a detrimental effect on steering as it causes the wheel to shake or pull to one side, as well as impacting the engine, tires, and fuel economy.
Unlike brake rotor-related issues, which tend to manifest when you’re actively braking, a stuck caliper will be more noticeable when you have your foot on the gas. Sticky calipers can often be traced to worn brake hoses or contaminants building up within the brake caliper piston, neither of which are simple fixes. We’re all about the do-it-yourself approach here at Check Engine, but when it comes to the system responsible for bringing your vehicle to a stop, we usually suggest consulting the experts.
If you’ve worked your way through the rest of the list and still haven’t narrowed down a suspect, you can always take a closer look at the wheel bearings. Wheel bearings are designed to last the life of a vehicle, so it’s pretty rare to see a shaky steering wheel that can be ascribed to faulty wheel bearing, but it does happen, especially if you tend to play a little fast and loose when it comes to hitting curbs and avoiding potholes.
Bad wheel bearings can present in a number of ways, from a humming, squealing, or growling noise to a clicking sound, wobbly wheels, or a vehicle that wants to pull to one side. Steering wheel vibrations are another common symptom, though the vibrations might also be felt through the vehicle as a whole. Again, a wheel bearing-related issue isn’t very common, but if you are in the market for a replacement, expect it to run you anywhere from $200 to $400 per wheel.
A Shaky Steering Wheel Is a Warning From Your Vehicle
While we’ll make some exceptions for the hardcore off-road set, few drivers enjoy the feeling of a shaky steering wheel. Being able to accurately navigate your car down the road is an important part of road safety, but it can be difficult when your steering wheel wants to shake, jump, and shudder in your hands. At its mildest, a shaky steering wheel might not seem like a critical issue that needs your immediate attention, but it’s often a symptom of a larger problem that could grow into a big-ticket repair if not promptly addressed.
The issue causing the shaking steering wheel is unlikely to resolve itself on its own, so if you notice that your steering wheel seems to be vibrating a little more than normal, it’s time to do a little automotive detective work. Failure to tackle the underlying issue can cause you to burn through expensive components like tires, brake pads, and rotors at an accelerated rate, which will take a toll on your wallet. A shaky steering wheel might add a little realism to your gaming experience, but it’s a most unwelcome sensation when you’re behind the wheel.