by Joshua Thomas
A steering wheel lock is a common security feature in many cars meant to ensure the vehicle cannot be hotwired and driven away or put on the neutral gear and towed. However, it can still be quite annoying if you do not know how to unlock the wheel.
A locked steering wheel can leave you stranded as it makes it impossible to drive the vehicle. And if there is no help nearby, you might even be forced to abandon the vehicle.
Ideally, the steering wheel should be unlocked by turning the ignition key, but this is not always the case. Here we explain some of the quickest and easiest ways to unlock a steering wheel and also highlight some of the common wheel lock causes.
If you have ever found yourself having to deal with a locked steering wheel, you might be perhaps wondering why it happens in the first place. Although there are plenty of reasons and situations that can lead to a locked steering wheel, the following are the most common ones.
The first and main reason your steering wheel will lock, and this is more so if your vehicle does not have any underlying issue, is because it is a security mechanism.
Most modern vehicles will have a myriad of safety mechanisms meant to prevent car theft and wheel locking when the ignition key is removed is just one of them. When the wheel is locked, the vehicle cannot be driven even when hotwired, and neither can it be put in neutral gear for towing.
Also, a steering wheel lock is meant to ensure that the vehicle cannot steer downhill in case you leave it parked at a steep angle or the handbrake fails.
The power steering pump is what makes the steering wheels on many modern vehicles super easy to turn. But while a steering pump makes the wheel easy to turn, like everything else in the vehicle, it is also not fail-proof.
A jam is the most common issue that can afflict the steering pump, and it often occurs when the engine loses power unexpectedly. And when the steering pump jams, your wheel be locked in one place.
Besides the loss of power, blockage of the valves in the steering pump by dirt and debris can also cause it to jam, and hence locking the steering wheel.
Putting the car key into the ignition and switching on the vehicle is the standard way of unlocking your steering wheel. However, it is not always reliable because it will not work in case the key mechanism is broken.
In case there is dirt or debris in the key mechanism or it is faulty, putting the key and trying to turn it will not unlock the steering wheel.
When the key mechanism is broken, it will not be able to switch the vehicle on or off, which results in a dangerous situation that mechanics fondly refer to as the “sudden lock up”.
While sharp turns might be unavoidable when driving in certain areas, what you might not know is that they can also cause the steering wheel to lock.
Frequent sharp turns will also hurt the transmission system and the engine which affects the overall functioning of the vehicle significantly.
Sharp turns can easily get the steering pump stuck and hence locking the steering wheel in place, and so if you can take the turns more gently and slowly, the better.
Although a broken down ECU (Engine Control Unit) is not the most common cause of day to day steering wheel locks, it can also lead to or at least contribute to this annoying problem.
Because ECU will control different things in the vehicle and ensure optimal vehicle performance, it should be obvious that in case it breaks down, it will have adverse effects on your car such as a wheel lock.
There are different ways this can happen such as a faulty ECU causing a sensory problem, which then switches on the steering wheel locking mechanism. Also, the ECU can stop sending power to the power steering mechanism, and hence locking the steering wheel.
If you know the cause of the steering wheel lock, then the problem is halfway solved as you will know what to do or at least where to start. There are different methods that you can use to unlock steering wheels, but here we focus on the 3 that seem to work for almost any situation.
The first method is unlocking the steering wheel by putting the key in the ignition and turning it. Assuming that everything in the vehicle is okay and it is a normal security wheel lock, this method is almost always effective. But you still need to know how to do it correctly to avoid frustrations.
Step 1: Insert key
In many cases, the wheel will lock because you applied force on the wheel when switching off the car or you leaned on the wheel for support as you were getting out. Hence, using the key just as you would in other circumstances, should help you unlock the wheel.
Insert the key in the ignition and then turn it. If the key turns and the vehicle starts, then the wheel should also unlock and if not, you should proceed to the next step below.
Step 2: Turn the Key Gently but Firmly
If the key does not move and the wheel remains locked in place, you need to apply a little more pressure while twisting it in the direction you normally would when starting.
Here you need to be very keen to ensure you do not accidentally twist and break the key which will result in a bigger and more expensive problem to fix. What you need to do is apply gentle but firm pressure until the key unlocks the ignition.
Step 3: Apply Pressure on Wheel
Next, try to apply pressure on the wheel by moving it in the direction that it turns a little. When the wheel is locked it can move slightly in one direction, but there will not be any movement at all in the other direction as it is where the locking pin will be located.
As you apply pressure to the wheel, also keep turning the key simultaneously which should unlock the wheel eventually. It may take a few tries but with a little patience, this method should work provided there are no other underlying problems in the vehicle.
Note: Although you might be tempted to rock and shake the wheel to get it to turn, you should not do it as itwill only make it harder to unlock the wheel.
Sometimes the only reason why you are unable to unlock the steering wheel is that the lock is a little sticky and the key will not turn well or will not even turn a lot. And so lubricating the keyhole will be very helpful.
Step 1: Add Electrical Cleaner
If you suspect that your key cylinder is the reason your key will not turn, a few drops of an electrical cleaner can be very useful.
Once the cleaner is inside the ignition cylinder, you only need to turn it back and forth to work it in. If this solves the problem, it is an indication you need to have the ignition cylinder checked.
Step 2: Clear Out Debris
Sometimes lubricating the ignition cylinder will not be enough as there might be some dirt and debris in there that still prevent the key from turning. In such instances, you need to spray out the debris with canned air.
And a few short sprays are often enough to clear out the debris. But remember to cover your eyes when using the canned air so that the debris does not end up in your eyes.
Step 3: Slide Key In and Out
In case the steps above are not enough to loosen the sticky lock, another effective method will entail sliding the key in and out gently. Doing this will help move out any debris that might be on the cylinder or key, and hence allowing the key to turn and unlock the wheel.
Lastly, you also need to make sure that the key is not bent and also does not have other physical imperfections such as chipped teeth that might affect its functioning and prevent the wheel from getting unlocked.
In some cases, there will be no other way to unlock the steering wheel besides doing a complete ignition set replacement. And although this is a little technical, you can still do it by going through your vehicle's manual for directions on what to do. But below are the main steps involved.
Step 1: Remove Cover Panel
Start by removing the cover panel on the steering wheel by simply removing the fasteners holding it in place. Once the screws are loosened, you only need to press the tabs and the panel should come out free. Remove both then lower and upper panels to have complete access.
Step 2: Unfasten the Cylinder
The next step is to unfasten the lock cylinder and to do this, you will need to identify the lock release tab on the ignition lock system and press it in. As you press the tab in, also turn the key until the cylinder moves backward and is freed.
Step 3: Install New Ignition Lock
Next, install a new ignition lock and then try the key to see if it will turn. If the key turns, you can now reinstall the lock cylinder back to its original place and set the lock tab to lock in place. Next, turn the key to see if it makes a full turn before you can reinstall the columns.
Step 4: Reinstall the Panels
The last step is to reinstall the panels back to their original positions, and you should start with the upper one followed by the lower one to ensure a precise and secure fit. And also make sure that all the fasteners are engaged completely and screw them tightly in place.
Step 5: Unlock the Wheel
If you did everything above correctly, you should now be able to unlock the wheel when you turn the key in the ignition. In case the ignition set replacement did not work, the only other alternative is to call in a professional mechanic.
A locked steering wheel is one of the most frustrating things you can encounter as a motorist as it will make it impossible to drive the vehicle, and can hence get you stranded.
The good news is that in most instances, unlocking the steering wheel is often easy as you will only need to turn the ignition key, and once the vehicle is powered on, the wheel is also unlocked.
While in some situations this might not work, there are still many other ways of unlocking the steering wheel, and you just need to identify the cause, which in many instances is one of the issues listed above.
And with the different methods listed above, you should be able to find at least one that will help unlock your steering wheel no matter the vehicle type or model.
About Joshua Thomas
Joshua Thomas just simply loves cars and willing to work on them whenever there's chance... sometimes for free.
He started CarCareTotal back in 2017 from the advices of total strangers who witnessed his amazing skills in car repairs here and there.
His goal with this creation is to help car owners better learn how to maintain and repair their cars; as such, the site would cover alot of areas: troubleshooting, product recommendations, tips & tricks.
Joshua received Bachelor of Science in Mechanical Engineering at San Diego State University.