When you hit the brakes, you expect your vehicle to stop. But while you expect that motion, you don’t expect to find that your steering wheel shakes when braking. It’s an unsettling feeling you want to get to the bottom of as soon as possible.
But what does it mean when that happens, and more importantly, how do you diagnose and fix it? We’ll answer those questions for you and even highlight a few other things you might feel from your steering wheel that you might be mistaking a steering wheel shake for.
7 Reasons Why Your Steering Wheel Shakes When Braking
Before we dive into how to fix the problems or how much you can expect to spend to keep your steering wheel from shaking when you hit the brakes, we need to go over the reasons your steering wheel shakes when braking in the first place!
1. Warped Rotors
Warped rotors are one of the most common causes of a wobble in the steering wheel when you hit the brakes. Rotors can warp from overuse, corrosion, or just excessive age, but no matter what reason, you need to replace them.
Not only does it create a wobble in the steering wheel when you hit the brakes, but it also significantly impacts your braking performance. Furthermore, you’re prematurely wearing down all the other components in your braking system.
Warped rotors are big problems, but the good news is that new rotors and pads are one of the less expensive fixes compared to many other potential causes of steering wheel shakes when braking.
If the problem is warped rotors, you can expect to spend between $350 and $500 per axle to have a professional fix it for you. But if you’re willing to do the work yourself, you can cut the cost to between $150 and $200.
There are few other ways on how to tell if rotor is bad. Make sure to read our article about it!
2. Worn Brake Pads
Do you know what goes in hand-in-hand with rotors? Brake pads. While it’s a little more unlikely that brake pads alone are causing a steering wheel shake when braking, if they don’t wear down evenly it can certainly lead to this.
However, if the brake pads wear unevenly it’s important to address the root cause of the uneven wear, or else the problem is just going to happen again.
Common causes of uneven brake pad wear include damaged calipers, warped rotors, uneven rotors, or even installation errors on the pads themselves.
If you just need to replace the brake pads and not the rotors, you can expect to spend between $250 and $300 at a repair shop. However, if you do the job yourself you can save yourself quite a bit of money and only spend between $50 and $100 for parts.
3. Unbalanced Tires
Did you know that tires don’t come perfectly balanced? Some areas on the tires weigh just a bit more than others, and while that might not seem like a big deal, it can lead to big problems.
When you’re driving down the highway at 70 miles per hour, your tires rotate between 700 and 900 times a minute depending on the tire’s size. Those small differences in weight can create a bit of a wobble at these higher speeds.
Those wobbles can get even worse if tire technicians incorrectly balanced the tires, drawing even more weight to the already heavier side.
While the wobble occurs whenever you’re driving, it might be more noticeable when you hit the brakes and are slowing down.
The good news is that if unbalanced tires are the problem, some shops will balance tires for about $15 a tire. While that’s still $60 for four tires, that’s about as inexpensive as it gets for automotive repairs.
4. Alignment Problems
When everything in your vehicle’s alignment is correct your vehicle pulls you straight down the road without any problems.
But when the alignment is off it’s dragging a wheel down the road. This causes premature tire wear as the tread wears off from excessive friction, but it also means your steering wheel doesn’t know which way to point.
One tire is pulling it in one direction while the other three are pulling it in different ways. When you’re hitting the brakes, you’re slowing down the tires further, and this increases the amount of friction the tires create with the pavement.
The higher the friction gets, the more you’re going to feel the steering wheel trying to pull on you when you’re driving. Since you’re holding it in place it might feel like it’s shaking back and forth as you try to keep it in the right place.
If your vehicle has an alignment problem and you take it to a professional shop you can expect to spend between $150 and $200 to get everything back in order.
5. Suspension Problems
It’s your tire’s job to keep your vehicle going straight, but they don’t work in a bubble. One of the primary components they work with is suspension components.
The suspension’s job is to keep the tires on the road and the cabin still. But if there’s a problem with some of the suspension components then it won’t be able to do its job the way it’s supposed to.
This can cause one of the tires to get out of sync with the rest. When you hit the brakes the tires are still out of sync, but there’s more friction in the system. This extra friction can cause your steering wheel to shake a little as the tires struggle to stay straight and on the road.
If you’re trying to narrow down a specific cost to repair your suspension system, it will be a little tricky. The problem is there are a lot of suspension components and there are even a lot of different suspension systems.
The cost to replace a coil spring will be drastically different than the cost to replace a leaf spring. Because of this, you need to figure out the problem with the suspension system and then go from there to determine the cost to fix it.
6. Sticking Brake Caliper
Another critical component in your vehicle’s brake system that could be acting up if your steering wheel is shaking when you hit the brakes is the brake caliper. The brake caliper is the component that pushes the brake pads into the rotor, which in turn stops your vehicle.
But if the brake caliper is sticking, then you’re not getting even braking pressure when you hit the brakes. This leads to one side applying more pressure than the other and your vehicle will want to pull to one side.
You don’t want your vehicle to pull so you do your best to keep the steering wheel straight, and this can create a shaking sensation when you hit the brakes.
If your vehicle’s brake caliper is sticking the best thing you can do is just replace it. However, keep in mind that just like you should replace rotors and pads in pairs, you should replace brake calipers in pairs too.
The average cost to replace a single brake caliper ranges between $500 and $1,000, so if you’re replacing both the cost might be closer to $1,000 or $2,000. But keep in mind that this is the price for a professional mechanic to do the job for you using OEM parts. You can save some money by doing the work yourself or using aftermarket parts.
7. Dry Guide Pins
While dry guide pins aren’t the most common occurrence, it does happen, and if the guide pins don’t get the proper lubrication, it can lead to them “jumping” from place to place when the pads are trying to shift in and out of place.
While this problem might be a little rare and is pretty easily avoided by lubricating the guide pins when you replace the pads, if it is happening it’s pretty serious. Not only will the brakes struggle to get into place when you hit the brakes, but they’re going to struggle to back off when you let go of the brakes.
This can lead to sticking brakes that will heat up far more than they should when you’re driving. This can lead to glazed brakes, premature pad wear, cracked brake pads, and your brake system catching on fire in the worst-case scenario.
The good news is that fixing this problem is pretty easy. Simply get a high-quality brake part lubricant and put it on the guide pins, and the problem should go away. Even better, you should be able to fix the problem for less than $10!
Other Steering Wheel Problems
If you’re feeling something in your steering wheel, it’s easy to jump to a shaking steering wheel even if that isn’t the problem. We understand, and it’s why we wanted to take the time to highlight a few things that you might be feeling instead of a shaking steering wheel just in case you were a little off track.
The Steering Wheel Pulls
One of the most common problems a vehicle can have with the steering wheel is that it pulls to one side or the other while driving. It’s extremely common, and it usually indicates there’s a problem with the alignment.
Get an alignment and the problem should go away. Even better, it will help prolong your tires’ life!
The Steering Wheel is Loose
While this is a relatively rare problem, it’s a pretty serious one. You shouldn’t have any play with the steering wheel when it’s on your vehicle, so if you can pull it back and forth at all, that’s a problem.
You’ll need to disconnect the airbag and get the right tool to tighten down the nut holding the steering wheel on. It’s an easy fix, and if you do it yourself, it shouldn’t cost you a penny. However, it is an extremely serious problem as it can cause the airbag to detonate or have the steering wheel fall off while you’re driving.
Hard to Turn
If you’re finding that it’s getting harder than normal to turn your steering wheel one way or the other, there might be a problem with your power steering system.
Take a good look at all the components of your power steering to ensure there’s no problem, and we recommend starting with the power steering fluid reservoir to ensure there are no leaks in the system.
Now that you know a little more about why your steering wheel shakes when braking, it’s up to you to take the time to figure out what’s going on and fix the issue.
Whatever you do, don’t ignore it. It’s not a problem that’s going to go away on its own. In fact, it’s likely to get worse and it can lead to an extremely dangerous situation while you’re driving.