Do you suddenly find it very difficult to turn the steering wheel in your car? Does the simple act of making a turn seem to require all the grit you can muster? Fortunately, you’re not losing all your muscle power—but you may be losing your car’s steering functionality. In particular, you may have a problem with the power steering system.
This does not necessarily entail massive or expensive repair work, and in fact it may not even require a trip to the local auto mechanic. It does require some thoughtful diagnosis, as well as quick action: Though it likely goes without saying, a problem with your vehicle’s steering technology is a potential threat to your safety, and needs to be remedied sooner rather than later.
A Brief History of Steering Technology
Before you can troubleshoot your vehicle, it may be helpful to know a bit of background on modern navigation technology. What we think of as a modern turning system actually goes back to the 1920s, when the wheel was linked to a hydraulic system to ease the physical burden of maneuvering a large, heavy automobile. Note that without this system in place, turning a vehicle would be exceedingly difficult—and the larger the vehicle, the harder it is to turn it without some sort of hydraulic aid.
This system is obviously important, but it is not necessarily complex. Actually, the technology that allows you to steer your car comes down to a few simple components. There is a pump that maintains pressure in the hydraulic system, using fluid to control the motion of the valves and pistons—in turn, making the wheel turn with less effort on the part of the driver. Basically, these hydraulics take the pressure off of your actual gears and internal mechanisms, and though you’re the one turning the wheel, the hydraulics are doing most of the work for you.
When Power Steering Goes Out
If there is a problem with this hydraulic system, you’ll know it: Simply turning the steering wheel will take a lot more physical exertion than you’re used to, and driving the car may actually leave you sore. The question is, what is the cause of this mechanical failure? And, what can you do about it?
The simplest solution is that the vehicle has simply run out of fluid; this could be due to a leak or it could be because you have not replaced the fluid recently. A more serious problem is that the pump itself is failing—not necessarily a common problem, but certainly, something that can happen in older vehicles. Additionally, it is possible for the fluid itself to become contaminated, as parts of the hydraulic system start to corrode—due to simple wear and tear—and little pieces break off.
The best way to prevent all this from happening is to take good care of your system, which really comes down to changing the fluid regularly. If you take your car in for regular servicing, this shouldn’t be an issue. Also, know the warning signs of a fluid leak: If your vehicle has been sitting for a long time and you see a puddle of pink or amber liquid beneath it, that’s probably the steering fluid.
If there is a bigger problem with the pump itself, you’ll want to take the vehicle in to a professional. You’ll know it’s coming because the system will start making loud groaning noises when you steer, a dead giveaway that your hydraulic system is giving out.
If My Power Steering Goes Out When I’m Driving…
A common question: What if you miss out on these warning signs and the system goes out when you’re behind the wheel?
The biggest thing is to not panic. Honk your horn and turn on your blinkers to let other motorists know you’re having an issue, and then slowly maneuver your vehicle to the shoulder of the road. Remember that turning will take a lot more effort than you’re used to, and also remember to brake gradually: Slamming the brakes could send the vehicle into a tailspin, and without proper steering controls you’ll have no way to straighten it out.
Once you get the vehicle stopped, turn the engine off and then on again. If the wheel seems like it can turn without any extra effort, you can try driving to a mechanic; if you cannot steer like normal then you may wish to call for a tow truck.
Keep Your Steering System in Good Health
The best thing you can do to avoid all this is to make sure that fluid is changed on a regular basis. It’s a simple act of preventative maintenance that can save you from some much more complicated—and potentially dangerous—consequences. Make an appointment at your local Meineke Car Care Center to have your vehicle properly serviced today.