Power Steering Not Working: Why This Happens and What to Do

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Imagine you are driving at highway speed jamming to your favorite song when suddenly, you feel this weird resistance from the steering wheel. You find yourself having to exert more effort in directing your vehicle and you start to ask yourself: “Why is my steering wheel hard to turn?”

If you ever find yourself having difficulties maneuvering or turning the steering wheel, chances are, your power steering has failed.

both hands of a woman holding on a car's steering wheel
If you’re having difficulty turning your steering wheel, you may need to have your power steering system checked.

What Happens When Power Steering Goes Out?

There are many potential causes for a loss of power steering. Furthermore, what potentially could go wrong depends on whether your car has hydraulic, electric or hydro-electric power steering.

Below is a detailed explanation of what can happen during a power steering failure, according to the type of system.

Types Of Power Steering Systems

Depending on what car you drive, the power steering could be any of the three types:

Hydraulic systems use hydraulic pressure from a power steering pump. This pump, which is driven by the engine drive belt, delivers pressurized power steering fluid to the steering gear.

Electric power steering systems use a motor instead of a hydraulic pump. In a fully electric power steering system, the electronic control unit takes control of the steering dynamics.

Electric hydraulic systems use electrically-driven hydraulic pumps instead of the engine-driven ones on conventional hydraulic systems.

Power Steering SystemProblem
Hydraulic Power SteeringLack of fluid supply due to power steering fluid leak
Failing hydraulic pump
Failed steering gear
Electric Power Hydraulic SteeringDamaged wiring
Failing electric motor
Power steering fluid leak
Failed steering gear
Fully Electric Power SteeringWorn-out electrical wiring
Damaged motor
Failing sensors and other electronic parts
Failed steering gear

If there’s a loss of fluid pressure in a hydraulic power steering system, your car will either have limited steering assist or lose steering assist altogether. When that happens, your car’s steering system will revert to manual operation (i.e., your muscles do all the work). As a result, the steering wheel will become very difficult to turn.

You may also experience a loss of power assist when there’s a problem in an electric or hydro-electric power steering system.

In short, the handling of your 2000s car would be just as heavy as a 1960s vehicle—difficult and tiring to operate especially at low speeds.

Power Steering Failure Causes

Here are the common culprits of a failing hydraulic or electric power steering system:

Loss of power steering fluid

A drop in your power steering fluid level indicates a leak somewhere in the system. Check the hoses, seals, and the hydraulic pump for any signs of leaks to avoid draining the fluid.

Damaged hydraulic pump

Loss of power steering fluid can damage the hydraulic pump and cause problems in your steering. So, what happens when the power steering pump goes out?

If the damage is very recent, you may begin noticing some noises. This can happen as performance deteriorates from smooth to hard-to-steer operation. When the pump fails altogether, you’ll have zero steering assist.

A power steering pump that’s leaking will cause the fluid to deplete faster, resulting in noise and, eventually, a loss of steering assist.

power steering pump reservoir with disptick cap open
Power steering fluid will deplete faster if the power steering pump is leaking.

Snapped serpentine belt

An engine-driven hydraulic pump relies on the rotation of the crankshaft to operate. The two are connected by a serpentine belt that spins the pulley on the pump when the crankshaft begins to turn.

When snapped, the belt will leave the pump powerless and, therefore, won’t be able to supply the system with hydraulic fluid.

Worn electronic components

As was mentioned earlier, electric power steering systems employ a collection of sensors, computers and motors. Should any of these components fail, your car may suffer a loss of steering assist.

What to Do When the Power Steering Goes Out

You can easily tell when the power steering begins to fail as the steering wheel will become very difficult to turn. In some cases, power steering failure happens gradually, while, in other instances, the failure happens spontaneously. In fact, it can happen while driving and catch drivers by surprise.

Most of the safety tips outlined below are pretty obvious, but not all drivers know the best way to react in such a situation.

Here’s a checklist of the things you need to do when the power steering system fails while you’re on the road:

Signal other drivers using your lights

Turn your hazard lights on to let other drivers know that there’s something wrong with your vehicle. By doing this, you’re also allowing them to pass you or practice caution when tailing your vehicle.

Carefully direct your vehicle to the shoulder of the road

Observe the road for approaching vehicles and carefully turn your steering wheel to direct your car towards the shoulder. This would require you to apply extra force, depending on the damage in your power steering system.

Take your time to switch lanes and don’t rush. Keep in mind that you may not be able to counter-steer instantly in bad situations.

Slow down until you reach a full stop

As you pull over to the side of the road, lightly step on the brake pedals. Make sure that there aren’t any fast-approaching vehicles before reducing your speed.

Once you’re on the shoulder lane, apply the brakes gradually until you’ve come to a full stop.

Assess the severity of the issue

Once you’ve parked your vehicle in a safe spot, assess the severity of the problem by turning the wheel left and right—check how hard it is to turn. Here is where you assess whether you can still drive the car to the mechanic or have it towed.

If the weight of the steering wheel is still manageable, you may be able to drive the car to the nearest mechanic. Make sure to drive slow and stay on the outside lanes to minimize steering inputs.

Be hyper aware of your surroundings and observe defensive driving at all times.

Call for a tow truck if in doubt

If you feel that you are unable to steer the vehicle accurately, call for a tow truck. Make sure that your vehicle is safely positioned on the shoulder lane as it might take a while before the tow truck arrives.

car towed by a truck because of power steering failure
Call for a tow truck if you feel like you can’t steer your vehicle accurately.

What is Power Steering?

Most cars nowadays are equipped with power steering mechanisms. Most younger-generation drivers don’t recognize the benefits of this feature until they get to drive older vehicles that lack power-assisted steering.

This feature helps the driver steer with ease as there is minimum resistance between the wheel and the ground, with the help of either a hydraulic or electric system.

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Staff Writers

In the Garage with is an online blog dedicated to bringing DIYers and devoted car enthusiasts up to date with topical automotive news and lifestyle content. Our writers live and breathe automotive, taking the guess work out of car repairs with how-to content that helps owners get back on the road and keep driving.

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