Steering Wheel Vibration: My Car Shakes While I’m Driving
Your car shakes while driving down the highway, the steering wheel vibration is driving you crazy, and without you even realizing it, it's causing you to feel tired. It can be quite exhausting holding onto a steering wheel that’s shaking.
Do You Need an Alignment? Probably Not!
I hear this from customers all the time; they pull into the garage and say, "I need to have an alignment on my car because my steering wheel shakes when I drive on the highway."
The truth is an alignment has nothing to do with your car shaking or your steering wheel vibrating. If you tell your mechanic you need an alignment, and they don't ask why, find a new mechanic. A good mechanic will always ask why you need work done on your car, so they can get enough information to decide how to fix the problem on the first visit.
Alignment, Balance: Two Different Things
Mechanics use these words to refer to different operations, though sometimes you get them both done at once.
Alignments only realign the tires so they are all pointing in the proper direction while driving down the road. If a car’s tires need alignment, it may pull one way or the other instead of straight when you let go of the steering wheel, or the tires may wear unevenly (deeper on the inside than the outside or vice versa).
If a car's tires need balancing, on the other hand, it may shake at freeway speed, or the tires may wear in a cupped or scallopped pattern. Balancing a tire means making sure the weight of the tire-and-wheel unit is balanced all around the axle, with every section having equal weight. The first step in balancing a tire is to match the heaviest part of the rim (usually the valve stem) to the lightest part of the rim (a yellow dot painted by the manufacturer on the tire's sidewall). Then the mechanic places the tire and rim on a balance machine, which positions plastic or metal weights as needed on the outer part of the rim to fine-tune the balance.
Balancing is something you might do routinely whenever you rotate the tires, every six months or 6000 to 7500 miles. Sometimes tire stores will offer you lifetime tire balancing and rotation. I highly recommend this service. Checking the tires routinely to see if they are wearing oddly will make them last longer and cost you less in the long run.
Alignment is something you might do routinely every year or so. It won't stop a steering wheel vibration, but it's good preventative maintenance, especially if you drive often on potholed, cracked, or dirt roads.
Tires Out of Balance
The most common reason your tires shake or your steering wheel vibrates is simple: your tires are out of balance. Tires take a beating when they hit potholes, bridge expansion joints, and curbs. Hitting any one of these objects could knock off a wheel weight, dent a rim, or cause a bubble in the sidewall of the tire, causing it to be out of balance. If you lose a wheel weight, it's an easy fix; you just need to have your tire balanced at the local garage.
Balancing should cost around $15-20 a tire. Of course denting a rim or damaging a tire could end up costing you more, because you might have to replace the tire instead of just balancing it.
Pothole Damage: Can These Tires Be Saved?
Foreign Objects, Snow, and Ice Can Make a Steering Wheel Shake
Another common cause of steering wheel vibration or car shake is having something lodged in a tire, like a large bolt, or any metal object you may have picked up from the road's surface (I have seen even wrenches and screwdrivers impaling a tire). If you live in an area that has snow, plowing through a snowbank could cause snow and ice to become trapped in the rim or wheel and cause a serious steering wheel vibration. Easy to fix: just rinse out the snow and ice with a garden hose or pressure washer.
Sticking Brake Caliper Causing a Vibration and Rotor to Overheat
Packed Snow and Ice Can Cause Vibration
Low Tire Pressure Can Cause Your Car to Shake
Low tire pressure is another common cause of steering wheel vibration or car shake. Low tire pressure can cause problems:
- poor fuel mileage
- abnormal tire wear
- tire edge wear
- chopping or scallopping
and the list goes on. A quick check of your tire pressures can save you money in the long run, in many ways.
In cold weather, tire pressures drop. When the temperatures outside drop below 30o F, I recommend raising the tire pressure about 3 psi above where you would normally keep it.
It's smart to keep a tire pressure gauge in your glove compartment.
Bald Tires Cause Very Bad Vibrations
If your tires are so worn that the ridges on the tread are smoothed out, or steel fibers are showing through the rubber anywhere, change your tires immediately. Bald tires will definitely cause your steering wheel to vibrate and your car to shake. Furthermore, if you continue driving on bald tires, they are likely to blow out, and having a tire blow out at highway speeds is extremely dangerous, especially if it's a front tire.
Don't be afraid to look at your tires to see if bald tires are causing your problems. You need to physically look at each tire. Turning the steering wheel to one side will give you a better view of the tread surface on your front tires. You will need to get on your hands and knees to check your rear tires closely.
Other Vibrations That Could Be Confused With Tire Vibration
Vibrations in your car don't always come from tire problems. In the first video, there is not only bad shaking from an unbalanced tire, but also a wheel-bearing noise that is louder when the steering wheel is turned to one side. In the second, the car shakes hard when the brakes are applied; the problem is with the brake rotors.
A Car With Both Tire Vibration and Wheel Bearing Noise
Don't Mistake a Brake Pulsation for a Tire Vibration
Don't Be Afraid to Ask
Don't be afraid to ask questions or leave comments. There is no such thing as as a stupid question, so just ask, and I will get back to you as soon as I can.
More on Car Noises From Eddie Carrara
- What is a Wheel Bearing? Your mechanic says you need a wheel bearing, what's a wheel bearing? Pictures, video, and discussion of what a wheel bearing is, what its job is, where it's located, and the noises it can make.
- How to Change a Front Wheel Bearing. Learn how to change a front wheel bearing with a step-by-step guide with photos and a video. What a damaged wheel bearing sounds like and how to determine which wheel bearing is causing the noise.
- Four Common Car Noises. There are four common car noises that drive a vehicle owner crazy. I will explain to you what they are and what you need to do to fix them. Plus a little secret that you should know when buying a new car.
- Brake Noises. Grinding, thumping, squeaking, and scraping.
- Four Common Brake Squeaks
Questions & Answers
I just recently purchased a 2004 Ford Taurus from an individual. I test drove it in town but not on the highway. When I got on the interstate, and I got up to 55 mph, the entire car shook, and I thought I was going to wreck. Can you please tell me what causes this and if it is fixable for a reasonable price?
A couple years ago I almost got into a head-on collision I had to pull onto the side of the road to avoid getting hit. When I went to get out of the ditch I had to jerk my car over really hard. Ever since then every time I drive my steering wheel shakes back and forth really fast. When I go on the highway get up to about 60 miles per hour my car starts to shake kind of really bad from the back. What could be the problem?
I just bought a car in 2008, and it's a 2008 Volkswagen Passat. When I'm driving down the highway and have to give it gas, it feels like my car wheel wants to break off or something. Whenever I'm not on the gas it's fine, but the moment I give it gas, my vehicle starts to shake really bad. It has new tires and has been balanced and has had an alignment done. Any thoughts on my problem?