Why Play in the Steering Wheel Is no Fun for Students in Auto Service Programs

auto service technician course

Maintenance work is an important part of keeping any car up and running properly. One of the most common issues with a car’s steering system is known as excessive play, which means there is too little resistance when rotating the steering wheel. Simply put, the steering wheel feels ‘loose’, or not appropriately responsive. While there are many factors which affect a car’s steering, some have straightforward repair solutions, and others are more complicated. Read on for more information about excessive play, its causes, and possible solutions.

Common Causes of Steering Wheel Play

Modern vehicles typically use two kinds of steering setups: rack and pinion steering, found in cars, small trucks, and SUVs, and recirculating-ball steering, which is used with large SUVs and trucks. Generally, the cause of play in the steering wheel can depend on the type of system as well as complications within those systems.

Tie rods are used in both types of steering systems, and help maintain the driver’s connection between the steering unit and the tires. If the tie rods become worn, this may cause the steering wheel to respond loosely. Unlike a rack and pinion setup, recirculating-ball steering uses a pitman arm, which connects the steering wheel to the rack, and when the arm becomes worn or the teeth in the connecting gear slips, it can affect the functioning components of the steering wheel.

Additionally, ball joints connect the wheel hubs of the vehicle to the rest of the suspension system. Depending on the model or type of vehicle, there may be one or two ball joints per wheel. If the ball joint is worn, this may cause the steering to feel loose and can result in poor driver input response and cause the car to drift.

Is Play in the Steering Wheel Dangerous for Drivers?

In brief: yes. Steering wheel play can be a symptom of a greater problem affecting a car’s steering system. When the steering wheel doesn’t respond correctly, it affects how you handle the car, and makes it harder to know the position of the wheels. The most dangerous roads to drive on with a low-response steering wheel are winding or mountainous roads, as well as roads with heavy traffic.

Steering wheel play can greatly affect a car’s driveability
Steering wheel play can greatly affect a car’s driveability

An unaddressed steering issue can cause excessive tire wear and increasing difficulty in steering. If the loose steering goes without maintenance for too long, the components may even completely separate, possibly resulting in an accident on the road. For this reason, it’s important for steering to be checked by a certified mechanic who has completed a mechanic program.

Standard Solutions Grads of Mechanic Programs Know to Use

If the problem affecting the steering system is straightforward and easy to be identified and addressed, the proper repairs are relatively simple. Check the tie rods for wear or superficial damage. It may be necessary to remove and replace the rods, and ensure that the new rods are properly lubricated. The pitman arm can also be removed and replaced, and should be properly tightened after installation. Worn ball joints or other elements of the chassis can similarly be replaced without much difficulty.

Steering which feels loose may also mean there’s another problem within the steering unit or the suspension system. Typically, graduates of auto service programs conduct a visual inspection and a dry park test, where one assistant rotates the steering wheel while the mechanic checks each steering linkage socket for any abnormalities or broken connections. Additional review may help diagnose a root cause in the intermediate components between the steering system and the tires.

The more the vehicle is used, the more wear the system accumulates, and this can cause excessive play. Microscopic particles of dirt, air, or water can contaminate the power steering fluid, making it foaming or discoloured. Additionally, an internal fluid leak, although rare, can affect a steering system’s responsiveness, and requires a more extensive repair process.

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