Why Does Your Steering Wheel Shake When Braking?

By: Colleen Cancio & Talon Homer  | 

man driving along the Atlantic Ocean Road, Norway
Before you hit the road with your quivering car, be sure to ask a mechanic you trust to take a look at your rotors — a possible cause of a shaking steering wheel. © Marco Bottigelli/Getty Images

Have you ever been cruising down the road with your car running smoothly, only to find that your steering wheel suddenly starts trembling like a hairless dog on a cold day the moment you hit the brakes? Your immediate thought might be that you've driven onto a quake-prone fault line. That's one possibility, but it's more likely that there's something wrong with your car. Now the question becomes, "What causes a steering wheel to shake when braking?" There are several possible answers, some more likely than others.

Vibrations in the steering column can happen for a number of reasons, such as a busted motor mount, bent rims, bad CV joints or loose lug nuts . But none of these automotive problems would cause a steering wheel to shake only when the brakes are applied. That's almost always due to a problem with the rotors.

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"What's a rotor?" Good question. Rotors are discs that your brake pads clamp down on in order to stop your car. In other words, they're pretty important. Why they may cause the steering wheel to shake when braking requires a quick review of how rotors work.

Rotors are usually made of metal and function at a specific width, depending on the make and model of your vehicle. When you apply the brakes, the rotors are exposed to intense heat that must be dissipated evenly across its surface for a smooth stop. However, rotors tend to wear down over time. As this happens, the metal may become thinned out or warped in certain spots. When the brake pads grip the rotor at high speeds, these imperfections cause a rumbling in the brake pedal that's then transmitted to the steering wheel.

The good news is that there are some simple solutions for fixing the problem, which we'll explore in the next section.

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Solutions for a Steering Wheel That Shakes When Braking

The first step in finding a solution for a steering wheel that vibrates during braking is to determine the cause of the shaking. As we mentioned, this is almost always caused by a problem with the rotors. Other causes of a vibrating steering system would generally cause shaking all the time, not just when braking. With that in mind, we'll focus this section on the most common rotor problems and their solutions.

One possible cause of vibrations in a car's wheel is an uneven tightening of the rotors. In that case, you should get yourself to a mechanic who knows how to tighten lug nuts in a star pattern . This is an elementary concept that any mechanic worth his or her salt should know. Most will also have a torque wrench to measure the tightness of the seal. Keep in mind that every car has its own standard torque specifications, which can be found in the owner's manual, or a mechanic's database.

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More often, a steering wheel that shakes when braking is caused by warped rotors, which your mechanic may be able to diagnose with a simple test — that is, by spinning the rotors by hand to feel for imperfections. A rotor in good working order should move freely and make a complete revolution without any bumps or signs of resistance areas. If you or your mechanic does notice these issues, you've probably got yourself a rotor problem.

For a more definitive diagnosis, your mechanic will need to remove the rotors and measure them with a micrometer. Rough spots or areas that are more worn than others may be re-machined with a lathe. This is called "turning" the rotors, and it shaves off a very thin layer of metal until the surface is smooth again. However, this tactic may not be your best bet. Turning can correct light warpage but won't do much good if the rotor is worn outside of the manufacturer's specs. Nowadays full replacement is the more common operation. If your car has received a diagnosis of bad rotors, you might be wondering how urgent a problem this is. It depends on a few factors, which we'll address in the next section.

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Is It Safe to Drive if my Steering Wheel Shakes When Braking?

If your steering wheel shakes when you apply the brakes, chances are you're going to need a mechanic fairly soon. Exactly how soon depends on a few factors, including the cause of the shakes. For example, you may be able to ignore the problem for a while — months or perhaps even years — if it's caused by improperly tightened rotors. The same is not true if the problem is caused by loose lug nuts. In that case, you'd be lucky to make it around the block.

As we mentioned in previous sections, a quivering steering wheel is caused by warped rotors in most cases. It's certainly possible to ignore this problem, but do so at your peril. Chronic vibrations can cause calipers, bolts, brake pads, ABS sensors, and other components of the braking system to loosen or wear out. This will quickly drive up the cost of what was originally a relatively inexpensive repair. The cost of replacing rotors is about $300-$400 with parts and labor.

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Larger and high-performance brakes will tend to be more expensive. Rotors and pads are commonly replaced together, running closer to $1,000 with combined parts and labor. If long-term neglect causes surrounding components to fail, then the cost can be several times that much. Another reason not to ignore your warped rotors is that the shaking they cause during braking may result in loss of stability. Driving is already one of the most dangerous things we do each day, so there's no reason to increase your odds of a crash. Besides, very few of us are able to avoid looking ridiculous when clutching a wobbly wheel.

You should also get the most longevity out of your braking system by having pads and rotors checked during regular maintenance. Like tire treads, brake pads wear down over time, and have a range of depths in which they're meant to function correctly. When they're completely worn down, they'll hit pieces of metal at the bottom called wear indicators. These cause a loud squeal when the brakes are applied and they make contact with the rotor, indicating that the pads should be replaced as soon as possible.

Continuing to drive around on worn pads is a sure-fire way to damage your rotors and increase your repair bill. Brakes can also overheat and warp after repeated hard stops, but this is less likely to happen under normal driving conditions.

In short, driving for a little while on warped rotors is probably OK, but don't ignore the problem for too long. Doing so is likely to lead to significant damage to your brake system and more expensive repairs in the long run. All things considered, it's best to have the problem fixed as soon as possible. So, before you hit the road with your quivering car, be sure to ask a mechanic you trust to take a look at your rotors. Chances are you can solve the problem quickly without breaking the bank.

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Originally Published: Oct 18, 2010

Steering Wheel Shake FAQs

Why does my steering wheel shake when I brake at high speeds?
Warped rotors can cause the steering wheel to vibrate upon braking. It could also mean that the rotors have not been installed properly. The vibration is first felt in the brake pedal and then in the steering wheel.
What does it mean when my car shakes while braking?
If the shaking is felt in the steering wheel and brake pedal, there might be a problem with the rotors. Rotors are made of metal and are subject to wear and tear, meaning that the metal can eventually become thinned out. When you brake, the rotors get pressed down in order to decelerate your vehicle. Rotors that are out of balance, however, can result in vibrations.
What does it mean when your steering wheel shakes while you are driving?
If your brake pedal is shaking along with the steering wheel, the problem might be a worn braking system.
Is it safe to drive with a shaking steering wheel?
You can, but you should have your car looked at by a mechanic and resolve the issue at the earliest. Vibrations can cause brake pads, callipers and bolts to wear out, and ignoring the problem is likely to cost you more.
Why is my car shaking while driving at slow speeds?
There can be several reasons behind this. If your car is vibrating while braking, however, you should get your rotors checked out because it is likely that they have become warped over time.

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