Power steering is a system that helps drivers steer the wheels of a vehicle by augmenting steering effort. It uses hydraulic pressure supplied by a power steering pump to assist in turning the steerable wheels. Power steering reduces the steering effort required for the driver to change direction of the vehicle. Most modern vehicles are equipped with power steering, which makes steering easier and more comfortable. However, power steering systems can sometimes fail, causing a loss of power assist. So what happens if you lose power steering while driving? Can you still steer the vehicle safely? Let’s take a closer look.
How Does Power Steering Work?
Power steering works through a hydraulic system that provides additional force when turning the steering wheel. Here are the main components:
- Power steering pump – Driven by the engine, this pump pressurizes the power steering fluid and sends it to the steering gear.
- Hydraulic lines – Transmit fluid between components.
- Steering gear – Has spool valves and directional valves that direct fluid to the wheel cylinders.
- Steering cylinder – Moves the wheels right or left when pressurized fluid from the steering gear flows into the cylinder.
When the driver turns the steering wheel, spool valves in the steering gear direct the hydraulic fluid into the appropriate side of the steering cylinder. This provides additional pressure which assists in turning the front wheels. The amount of assisting pressure provided depends on how far the steering wheel is turned.
What Causes Power Steering Failure?
There are several reasons why power steering might fail, including:
- Low power steering fluid level – Fluid leaks or neglecting fluid checks/changes can cause low fluid, leading to pump cavitation and failure.
- Belt failure – If the belt that drives the power steering pump breaks, the system will lose assist.
- Leak in hydraulic lines – Fluid leaks decrease system pressure needed for assist.
- Faulty power steering pump – Pump failure eliminates the source of pressurized fluid.
- Issue with steering gear or rack – Malfunctioning steering gear components affect fluid flow and pressure.
Diagnosing the specific reason for power steering failure requires checking fluid levels, looking for leakage, inspecting belts, and testing components. Replacing the failed component and refilling fluid will typically resolve the issue.
Can You Still Steer Without Power Steering?
Yes, it is possible to steer a vehicle without power assist – but it will be much more difficult. The actual steering components – the steering shaft, steering gear, tie rods, and steering knuckles – are all part of the mechanical linkage that turns the wheels when the steering wheel is rotated. This basic steering system works even without fluid power assist.
However, you’ll have to put in significantly more physical effort to turn the wheels without power steering. The lack of hydraulic assist makes the steering very heavy and tough to turn. This is especially noticeable at low speeds where more steering effort is required overall. Steering a vehicle without power assist demands more upper body strength to maneuver the steering wheel. It can quickly lead to fatigue and make controlling the vehicle difficult.
The amount of extra steering effort needed will depend on factors like:
- Steering system design – Trucks and other large vehicles require more effort than cars.
- Tire configuration – Larger tires increase effort needed.
- Speed – Steering is lighter at higher speeds.
Some older vehicles had manual steering without any power assist. But most drivers today are accustomed to having power steering. So its sudden loss can be an unexpected and dangerous situation.
Driving Safely When Power Steering Fails
Here are some tips for maintaining control of your vehicle if the power steering fails while driving:
- Keep both hands firmly on the wheel – This gives you the most leverage for turning.
- Loosen your grip – Don’t fight the wheel by holding too tightly.
- Focus your effort when needed – Apply concentrated force when starting a turn, then ease off.
- Look well ahead – Scan far down the road to anticipate needed turns.
- Pump the wheel – Use quick pulses to make adjustments rather than trying to turn the wheel smoothly.
- Countersteer out of slides – Turn the wheel in the opposite direction if the rear wheels start to slide.
- Keep speed low – Drive slower to avoid the need for quick maneuvers.
- Pull over cautiously – Look for a safe place to stop completely and call for assistance.
Follow these steps, and drive prudently until you can safely exit the roadway. Have your power steering system inspected and repaired promptly to restore normal steering.
Common Signs of Failing Power Steering
Catching power steering problems early can help avoid a breakdown. Watch for these signs that your power steering may be failing:
- Increased steering effort – Having to turn the wheel with more force can indicate low fluid or failing pump.
- Groaning/squealing noises – Pump wear or low fluid causes noisy operation.
- Leaking fluid – Inspect components if you spot drips under the car.
- Slower steering response – Delayed or sluggish turn-in points to steering issues.
- Vibration in wheel – Pump cavitation creates shaking sensations in steering wheel.
- Jerky turning – Instead of smooth motion, steering feels rough or inconsistent.
Schedule service if any of these symptoms arise, before complete failure occurs at an inopportune time. Minor power steering repairs can help extend the life of the system.
Power Steering Preventative Maintenance
Regular maintenance is key for preventing most power steering problems. Here are some power steering services to keep your system in top shape:
- Check fluid level – Inspect monthly for proper cold level and top up as needed.
- Change fluid – Drain and refill fluid per manufacturer interval, usually every 30,000+ miles.
- Inspect hoses and seals – Look for cracking, swelling or leaks.
- Check drive belt – Examine for cracks, fraying, and proper tension.
- Fluid flush service – Periodic complete fluid exchange removes accumulated contaminants.
- Tune up – New fluid and filter ensures optimal performance.
Your vehicle owner’s manual will list the recommended intervals for each service. Staying on top of maintenance gives you the best chance to avoid being left without power steering on the road.
Power Steering Repair Costs
How much can you expect to pay for common power steering repairs? Here are some average costs:
|Rack and pinion replacement||$350-$850||$400-$800||$750-$1650|
|Steering gearbox replacement||$350-$900||$400-$700||$750-$1600|
|Power steering pump replacement||$350-$750||$150-$250||$500-$1000|
|Replacing power steering hoses||$100-$350||$150-$250||$250-$600|
Labor times vary depending on vehicle make and model. Diagnostics may be needed to pinpoint the failure in some cases. Prices can be higher for luxury or performance vehicles.
Considerations for Vehicles Without Power Steering
While the majority of modern vehicles have power steering, some vehicles provide manual steering without assist:
- Older vehicles – Power steering was introduced in the 1950s, so pre-1950s vehicles have only manual steering.
- Basic economy cars – Some minimalist vehicles omit power steering to reduce cost and weight.
- Off-road vehicles – Some rough-terrain ATVs and UTVs forego power steering for simplicity.
- Go-karts – Small recreational go-karts universally use direct manual steering.
- Electric vehicles – A few EV models use steer-by-wire systems instead of hydraulic power steering.
Driving these types of vehicles requires extra physical effort from the driver when turning the wheel. You’ll also need increased hand-eye-body coordination to handle the sensitive steering. Expect a learning curve switching from a vehicle with power steering to one without.
Electric Power Steering Concerns
Newer vehicles increasingly use electric power steering (EPS) instead of hydraulic systems. EPS has a motor that provides the assist rather than hydraulic pressure. But EPS can still fail in ways that affect steering:
- EPS motor failure – Loss of the assist motor leaves only the basic manual steering.
- Electrical faults – Shorts, bad connections, or failures in the wiring harness disable assist.
- Sensor issues – Malfunctioning torque or position sensors impact assist motor control.
- Software errors – Bugs or calibration issues in the EPS computer can interfere with assist motors commands.
Diagnosing EPS faults requires special scans tools and procedures. EPS repairs also tend to be more complex compared to hydraulic systems. But the same tips for steering without power apply.
Power steering failure while driving is a serious safety concern. Losing the power assist makes steering extremely challenging, especially at lower speeds. However, as long as the basic steering components are intact, you can still technically steer the vehicle. Focus your efforts on maintaining control and bringing the vehicle to a safe stop. Proper maintenance and attention to early warning signs reduces the chances of being caught off guard by sudden power steering loss. Understanding the root causes and repair options empowers you to make informed decisions if power steering problems arise.