How to Unlock Steering Wheel in a Vehicle

All drivers had to ask themselves how to unlock steering wheel because this horrible situation has happened to them at least once – they sat in their car, fastened their seat belts, and put the keys into the ignition, only to find that the car won’t start. In other words, their steering wheel got locked and wouldn’t move, so here is everything you need to know about how to unlock them.

What Are Locked Steering Wheels? 

Locked steering wheels aren’t a strange or unheard-of situation. And believe me, you will know if you have one. You won’t be able to start the car, and your steering wheel won’t budge. This is a very common occurrence, and you shouldn’t be alarmed if it happens. It’s really no big deal, and you’ll be back on the road in five minutes. 

The only problem is that it seems to happen every time anyone’s in a rush to put on their seat belts and get somewhere, especially work, and the GPS system says that we have 15 min less than we would like to. Just have some patience and relax, there is a very simple and easy solution to this problem, and no need whatsoever to call the mechanic or the towing service. In fact, it’s one of the rare situations where your car won’t start, and there’s no need for a towing service. 

Person driving Hyundai car

What Causes Steering Wheels to Lock Up? 

Everyone knows that there are a few really serious problems that could occur when driving. Those problems are related to the car’s most vital components, without which there is no driving, such as the transmission. But I think we can all agree that the steering wheel is in the top 3 most important parts of the car. Just imagine trying to drive without it – you wouldn’t be able to follow any roads, and you would always be going in a straight line (until the first obstacle, of course). 

So, the initial thought of not being able to use it is pretty scary, and until you know what’s really going on, a locked steering wheel can seem quite dangerous. There are many things that can cause it to lock up, and as soon as you find out what it is, you can prevent it from happening. Here are the four most common cases of locked steering wheels and their causes. 

When Your Steering Wheel Locks While the Car Is Parked (Ignition Lock)

This is the most common situation when it comes to locking the wheel. In this particular case, the wheel has been locked after the car has been parked and the engine is turned off. This possibility was introduced, a long time ago, to many older, used cars as an anti-theft device. No matter if you do it on purpose or as an accident, you can lock your wheel by turning your car off, turning the steering wheel to one side until you hear a click, and then taking the key out. 

Almost all modern cars that have turn-key ignitions will have the ability to do this. This trick completely stops the steering wheel from moving when the key isn’t in the ignition. That means that even if a thief could get their hands on your car, he couldn’t take it far without the ability to move the steering wheel. This situation could be very stressful if you accidentally put it into lock mode and don’t know how to unlock it all on your own. 

Also, there are many ways you can put your steering wheel into lock mode without even realizing it. You could accidentally activate the lock by moving the wheel while reaching for something in the passenger’s seat or when entering or exiting the vehicle if you have a habit of holding on to the wheel while doing so.

Your Steering Wheel May Lock Up While Driving at High Speeds

This situation is practically unheard of because it’s so rare and the chances of it happening to you are slim to none. But yes, under some incredibly rare circumstances, it is possible for your wheel to lock up and refuse to move while you’re driving. While each car is built to be safe and prevent your steering wheel from malfunctioning, issues sometimes happen. A sudden breakage in the mechanics can cause the steering column to freeze and lock up mid-drive. 

It’s pretty scary when you think about it – imagine not being able to move your steering wheel and control your vehicle at high speeds. Luckily, the lack of response won’t happen all at once in most cases, so you will be able to move it a little bit if you use a lot of force and effort. If this ever happens to you, don’t panic. Start pressing the brake pedal and slowly start to brake. Do whatever you can to safely come to a stop at the side of the road

Make sure to turn on your hazard lights – a tail light won’t be enough. You have to let other drivers know that you’re in trouble and can pose a risk to them. Once your car has come to a full stop, call your mechanic and a towing service to help you out.

The Better Option Is to Have Your Steering Wheel Lock Up While Driving at Very Low Speeds

If you have to choose between two bad situations where your steering wheel locks up while you’re still in motion, this one is the winner. It’s the case where it decides to freeze and lock up at pretty low and harmless speeds.

This usually happens when you’re cruising around the parking lot, looking for a parking space. In comparison to the other situation where your wheel is locked while you’re at full-speed, not being able to move it while moving at a speed of 5 mph seems pretty harmless. The worst that could happen is bumping into another vehicle in the parking lot and scratching it. If this situation does happen to you, simply press on the brakes, as stopping at such low speeds shouldn’t be a problem, and remember to pull the parking brake once you come to a full stop.

Another thing you should keep in mind is that the cause of the wheel lock is not the same when it happens at high speeds and low speeds. As mentioned, when your steering wheel malfunctions while your car is moving at high speeds, it’s usually the steering linkage failure’s fault. On the other hand, when your wheel locks up while you’re cruising around in your car minding your own business at low speed, it’s the power steering fluid’s fault.

Just like brake fluid needs refilling every once in a while, power steering wheel fluid does as well. So, if you ever find yourself trying to unlock your steering wheel at a parking lot somewhere, know that there is a problem with your power steering fluid – it’s either running low and needs refilling or it’s dirty and needs changing. This fluid is a critical component of the car’s power steering system that allows you to easily maneuver your car at lower speeds.

Your Steering Wheel Locks Up Only In a Certain Direction

The last case of locked steering wheels is a little different. While in other cases you can’t move it at all, in this case, the steering wheel is locked only in one specific direction. This means you can turn it to the left, and your car will react accordingly by turning left, but you can’t turn it to the right, and vice versa.

Another thing that is unique about this case is that you can’t fix it by yourself most of the time. In 99% of the time, you will need to call a mechanic and a towing service to help you out. So, if this happens to you, be ready to spend a few bucks, but luckily for you, it doesn’t happen very often. What is the source of this issue? The cause, in most cases, is a problem with the power steering system and not just with the power steering fluid. It’s usually a mechanical problem only a mechanic would know how to fix.

How to Unlock Steering Wheel On Your Own

The good news is that, most of the time, there is no real issue with your steering wheel. You simply locked it on accident by activating the safety feature that exists to make stealing much harder for potential thieves. So, if there is no real problem with it other than the fact it got locked, then there is no need to go call your mechanic to ask him to clear his schedule – you can fix it all on your own in a couple of minutes

Unlocking your steering wheel is actually very simple, easy, and fast, and there are just a couple of steps you need to follow. For starters, you should know that there is a slight difference in this process between cars with an ignition cylinder and cars with a start button. 

How to Unlock a Steering Wheel On a Car With a Start Button

Most recently manufactured, high-price cars don’t use the ignition cylinder anymore; they use a start button that starts the car when pressed in combination with a recessed brake pedal. But no need to worry, as unlocking the steering wheel on these vehicles is still pretty simple even though it’s an electronic deadbolt. Simply start aggressively moving and wiggling it while simultaneously pressing the start-stop button. Just make sure not to press down the brake pedal so your car doesn’t start, and you’re all done. You can turn your car on normally after this and start it. 

What Is the Process When It Comes to Cars With an Ignition Cylinder?

An ignition cylinder is directly connected to the steering wheel lock, making it pretty easy to fix. You won’t be needing any tools or equipment other than your car key. There is a simple way of unlocking the wheel, but if everything else fails, you can try using a spray lubricant or another key. Before you try the lubricant, here is a step-by-step guide on how to quickly unlock your steering wheel:

  • Gently put your car key into the ignition, 
  • Try to move it and wiggle it left to right – feel free to use some force, you won’t break it,
  • While you’re moving it aggressively, turn the key in the ignition until it comes to the ACC (accessory) or START position – it’s normal to feel some resistance, use some force to turn your key, it won’t break.
driving car on highway, close up of hands on steering wheel

Once the Steering Wheel Is Unlocked, Start Your Car and Continue Your Ride

Once you can feel that your steering wheel is moving with ease once again, congratulations – you’ve successfully unlocked it. Now it’s time to start your car again and drive off. Just keep in mind that while it’s a minor issue that can be fixed relatively quickly, even quicker than changing windshield wipers, you should try to avoid it if you’re not using it as an anti-theft device.