Why Does My Steering Wheel Shake?

Here's why your steering wheel is shaking and what you can do to solve the problem.

Modern vehicles are designed to drive smoothly, even on not-so-perfect road surfaces. Although some vibrations when driving can be normal, if your steering wheel is shaking, something is wrong.

There are many possible sources of a shaking steering wheel. The key to diagnosing the problem is determining when the shaking takes place: during low, medium or high speed driving; when braking, turning or accelerating; or a combination of these actions. If the same vibration occurs under the same circumstances, or worsens, it’s time to get your vehicle to the pros.

Unbalanced tires, warped brake rotors and damaged or worn suspension system parts are the most likely causes for a shaking steering wheel.

Tires and Wheels: Medium- to High-Speed Driving

Tires and wheels must be balanced to prevent vibration. Wheel balancing is the process of equalizing the combined weight of a tire and wheel assembly, allowing it to spin smoothly at high speed.

Tire imbalance results from one section of a tire being heavier than another. That causes the tire and wheel to vibrate up and down or side to side at specific speeds. That vibration typically telescopes up through the steering wheel, causing it to shake. Abnormal tire wear, wheel damage from an impact (hitting a pothole, curb or being involved in an accident), unevenly worn tires or even a patched tire can also cause an imbalance.

Balancing your tires and wheels usually fixes this problem. That involves spinning a tire and wheel assembly using a specialty piece of equipment called a wheel balancer (it’s a job for pros, not DIYs!). Using sophisticated software and sensors, wheel balancers identify a tire’s heavy spots. Wheel weights are added opposite of the heavy area to counteract the imbalance, which eliminates the vibration.

Even new tires usually have some imbalance. Have you ever notice a yellow or red paint dot on new tires? These indicate the lightest point (yellow) or maximum out-of-round (red) on the tire.

Brakes: Any Speed

A warped or damaged disc brake rotor or out-of-round brake drum can cause a steering wheel to shake. A warped disc means the thickness (run-out) across the face of the rotor differs. As the brake pads move over a thinner area of the rotor when stopping, the brake pedal will move up and down. As the thickness variations on the rotor increase with wear, or as the rotors heat up, the pulsations intensify and travel through the suspension system to the steering wheel. Rotors and brake drums can be resurfaced, but if they are worn beyond manufacturer’s specifications they need replacing. It is best to replace both sides at the same time.

Whether you do the brake repairs yourself or leave it to a mechanic, be sure the brake calipers are not binding. Binding calipers cause overheated, scored and cracked rotors. These defects cause vibrations. Always replace all the brake hardware when replacing brake pads.

Suspension Systems: Low- to Medium-Speed Driving

An out-of-alignment suspension system usually will not cause the steering wheel to vibrate. It will cause tires to wear abnormally, however, causing the tires to vibrate. Loose suspension parts (bushings, tie-rod ends, mounting hardware), a worn wheel hub bearing or drive axle CV joint can cause steering wheel vibration, usually at low speed, and likely will be more pronounced when turning into a driveway or when parking.

Other Causes: Any Speed

Snow jammed into the back side of a wheel, road tar or a plastic bag wrapped around a drive axle or drive shaft can cause steering wheel vibration. Wheel weights can also fall off. And stay away from tire sealants. If the sealant doesn’t fully adhere to the inside of the tire, the tire will vibrate. Tire sealants can be extremely difficult to clean out and can ruin a repairable tire or tire pressure monitoring system sensor.

It’s wise to have your repair shop check your tires, wheels, brakes and suspension during recommended maintenance intervals to help avoid future problems.

A shaking steering wheel is most likely caused by a problem that’s only going to get worse. Whether you check your car yourself or take it to a shop, deal with the shaking issue before it causes additional problems with your car.

Bob Lacivita
Bob Lacivita is an award-winning ASE and General Motors auto technician, vocational educator, Career and Technical Center administrator and freelance writer who has written about DIY car repairs, vehicle maintenance and other self-help topics for more than 20 years.
At the age of 12, Bob took his first engine apart, a 2-cycle Briggs and Stratton from a lawn mower he found in the trash. At 14, he rebuilt a seized 256cu.in. Chevrolet engine in a 1956 Belair that he drove for three years. He spent most weekends, as well as the money he earned working a gas station, at Atco Dragway in Atco New Jersey.
Although trained as an architectural drafter, he never worked a day in that field. Still, the skills he learned helped as he renovated and rehabbed his homes. His true love was cars and so he made that his life’s profession. Bob worked for one of the largest Oldsmobile retailers in the country and earned Pontiac and Oldsmobile Master Technician Elite status as one of the top 20 GM technicians in the country.
Bob was also a Pennsylvania Department of Education (PDE) certified career and technical educator for 25 years, teaching automotive technology for 11 of them. He's been a Certified Vehicle Safety Insructor and an Emissions Inspector, too. Bob earned his master’s degree in educational leadership, as well as his PDE K-12 Principal Certification and his Career and Technical Education Directors and Curriculum Supervisors certificates, to become a school administrator. When it comes to education, Bob has two sayings: The kids are the best part of teaching, and teaching was the hardest job he ever had. It was the best job he ever had, too.
Since retiring, Bob has continued to maintain his ASE Master Technician; MACS Section 609 Refrigerant Recycling Certification; PA safety and emissions inspector certifications, credentials, and licenses; and participated in more than 100 hours of update technical training through MotorAge, Snap-On, Dorman Products and Automotive Technician Training Services, Mitchel1 and others.
Bob currently writes regularly for Family Handyman and works as a consultant with one of the largest automotive retailers on the East Coast, setting up an automotive technology training and apprenticeship program in partnership with a local catholic high school.
Bob and his wife lived through 40 years' worth of DIY home remodeling while parenting two (now grown) boys, and now relax by watching their three fabulous granddaughters.