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Summary
  • Clock springs connect the steering wheel to the steering column without breaking the electric cables between the two.
  • Some automakers call this component a “spiral cable,” but it’s not a spring, per se. It’s a plastic printed circuit that is very easy to break if not installed properly. 
  • You can tell if a clock spring is faulty if any of the electrical systems linked to the steering wheel start to malfunction.
  • While you can drive with a bad clock spring, it’s not recommended because important safety features like airbags and horns won’t function properly.

Clock springs are often overlooked because they can’t be seen without dismantling the steering wheel. However, you can’t afford to disregard it if you want to ensure your safety on the road, as it’s connected to the airbag. Let’s take a closer look at it and why it’s important.

What Is a Steering Wheel Clock Spring?

automotive steering wheel clock spring image
A steering wheel clock spring | Image Source: Richard McCuistian

Before the days of driver airbags, vehicles with speed control had a set of slip rings that connected the buttons on the steering wheel to the cruise control system.

But with the advent of driver airbags, a better connection was needed than slip rings, which tend to have scratchy, unreliable connections as the car ages.

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The spiral cable “clock spring” is actually a printed circuit strip that is coiled so that it is connected on one end to the steering wheel and on the other end to the circuits feeding the horn, cruise control, and airbag circuits, and maintains the connection throughout the range of steering wheel rotation.

Where Is the Clock Spring Located?

The clock spring is mounted on the steering column under the steering wheel.

You can access it by removing the steering wheel and searching for the wired, circular part underneath. It’s often in the same assembly as the turn signal lever.

To remove the clock spring, you’ll need to detach the wires that connect it to the steering column.

How Can You Tell If a Clock Spring Is Faulty?

When the clock spring is faulty, the horn and airbag, and steering wheel buttons and switches won’t operate.

Airbag Warning Light

A faulty clock spring can cause the airbag warning light to illuminate because it opens the deployment loop that fires the airbag and the restraint module detects that open circuit.

Malfunctioning Car Horn

One of the most frustrating problems a driver can face with a bad clock spring is the car horn becoming unresponsive. This typically occurs when the clock spring gets cut off from the car horn via displacement, damage, or general wear and tear.

Noisy Steering Wheel Rotation

In some cases, the steering wheel can emit a clicking or rubbing sound when it’s turned. The faulty clock spring can also cause issues for the radio and cruise control because these circuits are also provided by the spiral cable/clock spring printed circuit strip.

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Unresponsive Buttons on Steering Wheel

When a clock spring becomes faulty, there’s a good chance that it’ll also take down all the buttons on the steering wheel. Checking for buttons that don’t do what they’re supposed to isn’t difficult. The clockspring usually renders them totally inoperative.

What Causes Clock Spring Problems?

Like other components, clock springs wear out over time. They’re not impervious to external damage either. Here are some of the things that can cause a clock spring to become faulty.

Improper Installation

The clock spring must be centered before installation (there are typically instructions on the spiral spring label) and a new spiral spring will come centered with some type of lock pin that is to be removed after it is installed.

The wheels need to be straight ahead with the steering column centered before the spiral spring is installed. Also, when replacing the steering rack, make sure the steering wheel is locked in the center position with the wheels straight ahead before removing the steering rack. Make sure the replacement steering rack is centered before installing it or you will destroy the airbag clockspring.

The wheels need to be straight ahead with the steering column centered before the spiral spring is installed. Also, when replacing the steering rack, make sure the steering wheel is locked in the center position with the wheels straight ahead before removing the steering rack. Make sure the replacement steering rack is centered before installing it or you will destroy the airbag clockspring.

Richard McCuistian, ASE Certified Master Automobile Technician

Wear and Tear

Most clock springs last the entire lifespan of a vehicle with proper care and maintenance, though this doesn’t mean that they’re indestructible.

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Impact Damage

When you get into a traffic collision, there’s a chance that the impact can damage the clock spring of the steering wheel. It depends on the severity of the crash. Of course, since the airbag is likely to deploy, the clock spring will be the least of your concerns. If the airbag deployed, the spiral spring did its most important job.

Can You Drive with a Bad Clock Spring?

While you can drive with a bad clock spring, there are a lot of risks that come with doing so.

For example, because the clock spring is directly associated with the airbag system, it can cause deployment failure if it’s faulty. That can make a huge difference during accidents.

Similarly, a bad clock spring can mean an unresponsive horn, making driving a hassle for you and risky for nearby vehicles and pedestrians.

About The Authors
Written By Automotive and Tech Writers

The CarParts.com Research Team is composed of experienced automotive and tech writers working with (ASE)-certified automobile technicians and automotive journalists to bring up-to-date, helpful information to car owners in the US. Guided by CarParts.com's thorough editorial process, our team strives to produce guides and resources DIYers and casual car owners can trust.

Reviewed By Technical Reviewer at CarParts.com

Richard McCuistian has worked for nearly 50 years in the automotive field as a professional technician, an instructor, and a freelance automotive writer for Motor Age, ACtion magazine, Power Stroke Registry, and others. Richard is ASE certified for more than 30 years in 10 categories, including L1 Advanced Engine Performance and Light Vehicle Diesel.

Any information provided on this Website is for informational purposes only and is not intended to replace consultation with a professional mechanic. The accuracy and timeliness of the information may change from the time of publication.

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