Steering Wheel Won’t Lock (Reasons and What to Do)

by Joshua Thomas

Modern vehicles have several safety and security measures designed to deter car theft, and hence reduce the likelihood of ever having to deal with the pain of losing your priced automobile.

One such security mechanism is the steering lock whereby the wheel locks in one place when you switch off the vehicle and remove the key.

The wheel lock is meant to make it impossible for anyone to drive the vehicle even if they hotwire it. Hence, a wheel that won't lock is a source of concern.

Steering wheel not locking is a common problem that many motorists have to deal with, and here we explain some of the main causes and also what you should do about it.

Steering Wheel Won’t Lock (Reasons and What to Do)
Steering Wheel Won’t Lock (Reasons and What to Do)

8 Common Reasons Steering Wheel Won’t Lock

Different vehicles face different driving conditions, and they are also made differently given the obvious differences in models and types.

Hence, several things can cause problems like steering wheel failing to lock, and they will vary from one car to the other. However, here are the most common causes of this annoying vehicle issue.

1. Not Turning Steering Wheel Far Enough

In many instances, the only reason your steering wheel will not lock is that you are not doing things the right way such as not turning the steering wheel far enough.

If you turn the wheel too far to the right or the left or even fail to turn it enough to either direction, it may not lock.

While this might sound like something very obvious, you will be surprised by the many motorists that make this mistake often and hence end up with a steering wheel that will not lock.

But, this should be an easy problem to solve as you will only need to turn the wheel to the left and then back to the right until you find that right spot. Remember that the wheel will have to be caught by the detent to lock in place, and hence the need to have it in the correct position.

2. Broken/Worn Out Detent

When you have a detent that is completely worn out or a broken one, there is a high possibility that your steering wheel will not lock. 

A detent is a part of your vehicle's steering system that ensures your steering can lock in place as it is what "catches" it. And so if it is broken or worn, it means it will not catch the wheel, and hence making it impossible for it to lock properly.

Regular use of the detent results in natural wear and hence over time this important part stops functioning efficiently. Hence, for new vehicles, this an unlikely source of the problem. Nevertheless, the detent is still one of the first things that mechanics will look at when your steering wheel is not locking.

3. Broken Actuator

In some cases, a broken actuator is the only reason your steering wheel does not lock in place. The actuator that goes from the solenoid to the wheel cog has a vital role to play when it comes to locking the wheel, and so if it is broken, it may prevent the wheel from locking.

Like other components in the steering wheel system, the actuator will wear down over time, which means it will cease functioning well, and hence bringing problems like the wheel failing to lock.

An actuator replacement is often the best way to solve this problem, but this often requires professional service since getting in there to remove and replace it can be more complicated than it sounds.

4. Broken Cog

The detent also works with a cog to ensure the steering locks in place properly. Hence, if the cog is broken or is just not working correctly, you may also find it hard to lock your steering wheel.

The cog will fit into the detent on the steering wheel column, and as it is used more and more, it can brake which then makes it hard for the steering wheel to lock.

And while a broken cog can be super annoying, it is often a straightforward problem to fix for an experienced mechanic and should hence not be a big concern.

However, fixing a broken cog is a job best left to a professional mechanic because an inexperienced individual can easily damage other things on the steering wheel column when trying to remove the cog.

5. Electric Locking Mechanism Failure

While many vehicles will rely on the manual steering wheel locking mechanisms, some models and types make use of electric ones. Hence, if you have a broken electric locking mechanism, you may find that your steering wheel will be unable to lock.

A locking mechanism that is not working well will not tell the steering wheel when to lock in place, which means that besides failing to lock, you can sometimes get erratic or unwarranted wheel locks.

Short-circuiting and wearing out of the wires in the electric locking mechanism are some of the main causes of this problem. But, you cannot tell the exact problem with the locking mechanism until you have it inspected thoroughly.

Since the locking mechanism will not be placed in an open and easily reachable area, this is job is best left to a professional because to fix the issue you will have to remove both the steering wheel and steering column.

6. Key Not Releasing All the Way

For your steering wheel to lock, the key has to release all the way. Hence, if any issues make the sensors think that there is still a key in the cylinder when there is none, the steering wheel will not lock.

This problem often occurs as a result of a faulty key cylinder. These cylinders are prone to failure due to different issues such as dirt and debris accumulation, natural wear and even using a key chain that is too heavy.

Cleaning up the key cylinder allows you to remove any dirt accumulation in there that might prevent the key from releasing all the way. But, some key cylinder issues will require a complete replacement to ensure smooth functioning and allow the steering wheel to lock.

7. Vehicle Computer Malfunctions

Most vehicles rely on computers to a great extent as they are what controls almost all the functions in the vehicle. Hence, it should be obvious that a computer malfunction can also prevent the steering wheel from locking as there will be a communication breakdown.

If the computer is what tells the steering wheel to lock when you switch off the vehicle, damage to the system or even a part of it malfunctioning might be the only reason your steering wheel won't lock.

A scan of the vehicle's computer with a scanning tool like OBD 2 scanner can help you determine whether it is what is preventing the wheel from locking or you have another issue.

8. A Loose Steering Wheel

The steering wheel itself is another potential cause of locking issues. And this is often more so when the wheel is loose and hence has difficulties locking.

A loose steering wheel may not be able to catch on the detent, and even if it does it will not remain locked in place as you can easily unlock it just by shaking and turning it.

The good news is that you can easily tell when you have a loose steering wheel as it will not feel normal and will also have too much play and sit differently.

What to do About It

What To Do About It
What To Do About It

With the causes of the steering wheel failing to lock highlighted above in mind, you are one step closer to dealing with the problem. The other thing that you need to understand is what to do about this problem.

Ultimately what you do will depend on the exact source of the problem, but here are the most common things that you will need to do when faced with this predicament.

1. Scan Computer and Clear Error Codes

If you are certain that your steering wheel or the steering column has no issues that may be preventing the wheel from locking, then the problem is most likely with the computer.

In such instances, you will need to scan the computer to identify the stored error codes, which are what is most likely preventing the wheel from locking. And once you clear these error codes, the steering wheel should lock.

2. Do a Comprehensive Steering Wheel Maintenance

A comprehensive steering wheel maintenance is perhaps the best way to deal with this problem. During the maintenance, even the smallest issues that can easily lead to a problem with the steering lock can be identified and fixed.

It is possible to do then maintenance on your own if your mechanic skills are top-notch. However, if you are an inexperienced motorist that does not have enough expertise on the steering wheel, this is a job best left to a professional to avoid causing even more serious problems.

3. Clean or Replace the Key Cylinder

The key cylinder is often where the problems with the steering wheel will start. Hence, as you look for a solution to this problem, you should also do something about it.

This often means cleaning or replacing the entire key cylinder. Cleanup will be enough when you only have dirt and debris in the keyhole that might be preventing it from turning all the way. An intake or brake cleaner or even any other penetrating lubricant will be very useful when cleaning the key cylinder, and you can easily do it at home without any professional help.

However, when it comes to replacing the key cylinder, this can get a little more complicated. Here you will not only need to get the correct replacement part but also know how to fix it properly. A professional mechanic will be better suited for this job.


A steering wheel that will not lock means less protection for your vehicle when you have to leave it parked somewhere for extended periods. Hence, when you notice that your steering wheel is not locking, you need to do something about it.

However, like with any other vehicle problems, you will first need to understand what causes your steering wheel not to lock to be able to deal with it effectively. And these causes can be minor things like failing to turn the wheel enough or more serious issues like broken cog or detent.

But, whether the cause is something minor or major, the good news is that this is a fairly easy problem for a professional mechanic to fix, and so you do not have to live with it.

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.

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