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Wheel and tire problems are some of the most common causes for a shaking steering wheel, but suspension issues and faulty brakes might also be to blame. The first thing drivers should do when they notice shaking is to pay attention to when it happens. Vibrations during acceleration or when traveling at high speeds most often indicate a problem with the vehicle’s wheels, while trouble when slowing down is more often due to brakes. A number of suspension issues and imbalances can also contribute, particularly if the vehicle in question is over ten years old.
Mechanics investigating shaking steering wheels usually start by looking at the vehicle’s wheels. Cars and trucks depend on a complex system of working parts for stability, but the four tires are the backbone of that system. When a wheel is bent, which usually has to do with the wheel socket more than the tire placed into it, the whole frame can shake during movement. People with this problem often notice that their steering wheels almost always shake a little bit, but the effects tend to be most pronounced during acceleration.
Wheel bearing problems are similar. Cars transfer energy to the tires through a drive shaft anchored by wheel bearings that help balance the weight of the car (known as the radial load) with the energy of movement (known as the thrust load). When one of more of these bearings is no longer doing its job, the pressures can become imbalanced. A steering wheel that shakes while driving straight but stops when going around a curve is commonly a warning that a ball joint is in need of replacement. Conversely, a steering wheel that is smooth while driving straight but becomes shaky while turning is often a sign of bad tie rod ends.
Sometimes the problem is as simple as a flat tire, and in these cases minor shaking is one of the first things people notice when they start to drive. The shaking is often accompanied by violent vibrations all over the car that get worse as driving progresses. Soft or bulged tires often bring about similar reactions.
In the case of radial tires, a broken belt may be to blame. Broken belts can cause the tire tread to take on an S-shaped form or simply to bulge out in the tread line; either issue will cause the steering wheel to shake and wobble.
Simple tire imbalance can also be a cause. Most mechanics recommend that motorists have their tires rotated, or balanced, every few thousand miles; in part this is to promote even wear, but it is also to maintain equilibrium in the car as a whole. If one side or quadrant of the car has seen excessive or disproportionate wear, the steering column will sometimes shake as a consequence.
A car or truck’s suspension is a somewhat complex system of rods, pistons, and shocks that keeps the vehicle balanced, both in terms of energy output and actual stability. Any number of problems with this system can lead to shaking, though loose connections, faulty ties, and worn or corroded cylinders are some of the most common. These sorts of problems can be difficult to self-diagnose for people without mechanical expertise, but are not usually hard to fix once they’ve been discovered.
People who notice the most trouble during deceleration might also have a brake issue. The goal of the brakes is to slow the entire vehicle, which is often more complicated than simply stopping the tires from spinning. Problems with brake pads, cords, or connections can lead to shaking or vibrating in the steering column as misguided energy seeks an outlet.
Of course, it’s also possible that a steering wheel is shaking because there is a problem in the steering column itself. This is most commonly the case when there are lose screws or twisted wires in the connection between car and steering wheel. People with these sorts of problems often notice the shaking most when temperatures are very cold; frozen screws and sockets don’t always have the same friction as they do when thawed, which can make sounds and vibrations seem all the more pronounced.
It’s usually a good idea for motorists to get a mechanic’s opinion the moment their steering wheel starts to shake. Paying careful attention is critical, too. The more a driver can recall about the circumstances of the shaking, the easier it will usually be to get a diagnosis and order repairs. Some problems will be latent for a little while which can buy a person some time, but others are more time sensitive. Flat tires, for instance, usually need to be addressed right away, and serious problems with suspension or brakes can cause accidents or leave drivers stranded.
My steering wheel was fine driving into work. When driving home, the steering wheel started shaking like crazy.