What to do when the steering column is stuck and the ignition won’t turn


One evening, I parked pointing downhill and like the book says, I turned my wheels to the right before parking. But I turned it a bit too far, because when I returned to the car and inserted the key into the ignition, the key wouldn’t turn.

The wrong thing to do is to force the key until it breaks.

Here’s the right thing to do:

Take the steering wheel and turn it left and right. One direction will have a little more play than the other. Grab the wheel with your left hand and apply pressure turning it in the direction with more play while using your right hand to turn the key in the ignition. (Or, if you’re like me and can’t figure it out, just wobble the wheel back and forth until the key unsticks.)

Note: I scheduled this item independently of its partner. By an amazing coincidence, both items warn against forcing something until it breaks.

Comments (47)
  1. James Kilner says:

    Did you never learn about the steering lock when you were learning to drive?  This is one of the most simple things to know about when learning to drive a car.  It is also a simple security measure because the steering lock will not disengage if you simply hot-wire the car (at least it didn’t when I learnt to drive).

  2. Matt Green says:

    I’ve never heard of the steering lock until now, even.

  3. rconde01 says:

    I recently had a related baffling experience. I could start my car, drive it around, but when i stopped it, I couldn’t get the key out. After being frustrated for 20 minutes we figured it out…by unfortunate coincidence the soda bottle sitting in my console exactly lined up with the automatic shifter so that it pushed its button when it was put in park…even after multiple moves from drive to park.

  4. James Schend says:

    Another handy car key related tip: If you get a duplicate key made, and the locksmith tells you "this key will open the doors, but will not start the ignition", don’t put the key into the ignition like a retard.

    I’m ashamed to admit I did that once, and it took ages for the locksmith and I to get the key back out. (What is it about people telling you not to do something that makes you instantly want to do it?)

    It wouldn’t surprise me to learn there are a lot of drivers who don’t know about the steering wheel lock. It really doesn’t come up often, and you never see car thieves in movies getting stymied by one. Plus a lot of drivers are women. ;)

  5. Nawak says:

    You mean none of you engage it by yourself when removing the key? It has become a reflex for me: remove the key, turn the wheel to make sure the lock is engaged. Someone tried to steal my car once (really don’t know why… maybe to crash into a shop and steal it afterwards or maybe just for training?). Anyway, with the lock engaged, it’s much more difficult and warrants by itself going to another car.

  6. Chad says:

    [Another handy car key related tip: If you get a duplicate key made, and the locksmith tells you "this key will open the doors, but will not start the ignition", don’t put the key into the ignition like a retard.]

    Or, better yet – hand the key back to the "locksmith" and walk out the door.  It’s not "retarded" to expect a key to work in both places if the original did.  It’s retarded to have a special rule for special keys.

  7. Barb says:

    [It’s not "retarded" to expect a key to work in both places if the original did.  It’s retarded to have a special rule for special keys.]

    Many cars require the key to contain a unique chip (RFID?). If the key doesn’t contain the chip or the car doesn’t recognize it, the car won’t start. If you just need a spare so you can open the car if you lock your keys inside, it’s much cheaper to buy the key without the chip. The special keys can cost up to several hundred dollars and are usually only available from the dealer.

    Even if the key does contain the chip, it may not start the ignition. Several years ago, my parents bought a car and only one of the keys was recognized. When they tried to use the other, the engine would turn over but not start. The fix was to insert the working key in the ignition, remove it, and then quickly insert the other key.

  8. James Schend says:

    Chad, my car has an electronic ignition. My choice was either to pay the dealership $120 to get a key that fully works (i.e. opens the doors and starts the car), or pay $3 to get a key that only opens the doors without starting the car. Since I only need this key to open the doors in case I lock my key in the car, I went with the $3 option.

    P.S. I hope you enjoy your black and white world. Personally, I kind of like having shades of grey.

  9. Jerad Clark says:

    I had this issue last week, oddly enough.

    Put the key in and couldn’t turn it because the wheel had been turned too far and locked.

  10. Nawak says:

    @Barb

    "The fix was to insert the working key in the ignition, remove it, and then quickly insert the other key."

    Did it really fix the problem? The other key went on working after that? Or was it just a swap trick like for the PS2 copied discs? In that case, it serves no purpose since you have to have both keys :)

  11. John says:

    The steering lock is one of several good reasons not to turn off the engine while the car is moving (loss of power steering/brakes being another).

  12. Barb says:

    @Nawak

    The key worked afterward. In fact, that was the fix suggested by the dealership. I assume that inserting the working key was enough of a security measure to allow the key’s data to be added to the car’s computer. It doesn’t protect against a thief stealing the key and car, but they don’t need to program another key if they already have one and it does protect against someone trying to use a master key to steal the car.

  13. Todd says:

    It’s so good to hear that I’m not the only person who hadn’t heard of that. I had that happen to me once and spent 20 minutes trying to start the car and couldn’t. Eventually I went back in and explained what happened to my girlfriend at the time and she just looked at me like I was stupid and asked whether I had jiggled the steering wheel. I had no idea why I would do that, but it worked.

    Now when I get into a car, it’s one of the first things I think of if there is a problem!

  14. Along the lines of keys and cars, my brother-in-law has a special key to his car which is card shaped and made entirely of plastic. The key bends out of a card so that he can unlock his car if he leaves his key in the car. The special key goes into his wallet.

    In a similar story, my wife and I both have keys to her car, but mine is a copy. It works fine on the doors and the ignition, but it won’t open the trunk like hers will. There is a trunk release lever inside the car.

    Both of these cars are older Dodge Neons, and neither of them have fancy electronic keys. So something about each of these key types must be just different enough that they work in one lock, but not in another.

  15. Val says:

    @MikeFried

    What you’re using is what I’ve always heard called a "valet key" – it’s intended for situations (e.g. valet parking) where you need to allow someone to drive your car but don’t want to give them access to your trunk.  You should be able to lock your trunk with an extra twist of the key so the trunk release lever won’t work.

    In my experience the dealer-provided valet key has a more rounded head so you can tell them apart.  (Obviously not required if it’s a 3rd party copy.)

  16. bramster says:

    Here I go, dating myself again.   On an old "I Love Lucy" episode, someone was faced with a recalcitrant doorknob.

    Lucy said "Just jiggle it a little, it’ll open"

    Of course, she said it quite quickly.

  17. Alan De Smet says:

    This (the key not turning until you jiggle the steering wheel) wasn’t something I was ever taught.  When I first ran into it a few months after getting my first car, I was utter baffled and assumed something was broken.  After a few minutes I discovered that jiggling the steering wheel fixed it and went on my way.  I then forgot about it and had to rediscover it maybe a year later.  It’s now happened enough that I know what to do.

    I’d never known what it was, I assumed it was just a quirk of the implementation. I was certainly never taught it in my driver’s ed (circa 1991).  Now that I’ve got a name ("steering lock", thanks James Kilner), that seems to explain it.  You’re talking about <a href="http://www.carsafe.org/steering_locks.html">this</a&gt;, right?  (It’s from an anti-steering lock site, so I don’t know how biased the coverage is.)  I’m guessing I very occasionally accidentally turn the key to "Lock" when I remove the key.

  18. TravisO says:

    Ironically I have experienced the wheel lock thing and didn’t know what was wrong.  Just because it seems common to you, doesn’t mean somebody else knows it.  "Common sense" should be called "all the experiences I had and I think everybody else should already know it".

    I never actually knew it was intentional or why it existed.  It never crossed my mind it would prevent hot wiring of a car either.  Great bit of info!

    > Plus a lot of drivers are women

    and amazingly the other 50% of drivers are men!  What are we implying here?

  19. Bryan says:

    "The fix was to insert the working key in the ignition, remove it, and then quickly insert the other key."

    To take a page from Raymond Chen himself:  "It rather involved being on the other side of this airtight hatchway".

  20. Tom says:

    Jiggle?  Wheel to the left + key to the right.  There’s no jiggling needed.

  21. Did you learn "The Right Thing To Do" after doing "The Wrong Thing"?

  22. marko says:

    That was the first thing I was taught at my driving school (or whatever you call it… ;)) – me looking like a complete idiot and my instructor laughing so hard he was barely able to stop me before I broke the damn key… :)

  23. Stephen Eilert says:

    People should really get in the habit of reading the Owner’s Manual, specially for the cars with those fancy coded keys.

    The proper instructions on how to use and copy the keys are there, not in some internet blog. Oh, and the steering wheel lock thing should be there as well.

  24. Puckdropper says:

    If the toilet runs, jiggle the handle.  If the car doesn’t, jiggle the steering wheel.

    One more tip… If the key won’t turn and the steering wheel is loose, try the gear select level.  Sometimes you have to move it out of P and back again.

  25. ChrisMcB says:

    My driveway to my garage is a down slope. Sometimes I park in the driveway to remove stuff from the car. When I’m ready to store the car, I don’t bother to start it. I just engage the clutch and let it roll into the garage. This works just fine as long as I don’t have to turn the wheel much. If I have to turn the wheel to much, the lock engages…

  26. Look both ways after stopping at a stop sign. And don’t forget to take your seat belt off before getting out of the car.

  27. KTC says:

    Been there, done it….

    @Stephen Eilert

    Doesn’t help if you have no (easy/immediate) access to the owner manual. i.e. being a volunteer minibus driver for a society, never owned a vehicle etc.

    It seemed I wasn’t the only person that didn’t get taught such thing, as not long later it happened to another volunteer.

  28. James Schend says:

    [>> Plus a lot of drivers are women

    and amazingly the other 50% of drivers are men!  What are we implying here?]

    It’s called a joke. I guess the smiley wasn’t enough to indicate that. Next time I’ll just close-caption it for the humor-impaired.

  29. AJ says:

    I love my new car.  When I get in my car, I push a button and the car starts no matter what the steering wheel decides it wants to do.  The IS350 is a fantastic vehicle.

  30. StewartT says:

    I got caught out by this one in my first time – something my driving instructor probably ought to have mentioned, but now I actually wiggle the wheel to lock the steering when I leave the car – if the locks always on you can’t forget why the key won’t turn.

    The steering lock is not one to forget about when you’re moving an otherwise dead car though. I found myself rolling down a hill in the drivers seat of a car with a broken engine, an empty brake servo and no steering – it wasn’t my finest hour and I won’t forget the steering lock again in a hurry.

  31. Here’s a tip for the cars with chips in their keys. This is true for many Ford products and possibly other makes. As long as you have *two* working ignition keys, you can get another key cut at the dealer parts department, and then program the new key yourself by following a procedure in the user’s manual that involves putting both of the old keys (one at a time!) in the ignition.

    The new key costs $25-30 if you do this, and it only takes a few minutes for the parts guy to cut a new key. Even if you lose one of your original keys, as long as you still have two working ignition keys, you can program another one like this, up to a total of eight for the car.

    But if you ever get down to only a single key, you can no longer program your own keys. Now if you want another key, the dealer has to reprogram the engine computer. They will want to keep the car for a while and it will cost around $200.

    The moral: Make a third key as soon as you get the car! And make another spare if you ever lose one and get back to two keys. Never let yourself get down to a single key.

  32. Meh says:

    Here I go, dating myself again.

    Most of us tend to include another person on our dates, though I suppose your way has advantages.

  33. Sam Holloway says:

    I wonder if this is a US vs Europe thing? Here in the UK, the steering lock is commonplace and everyone knows the procedure. I can’t think of a car I’ve driven made in the last 10-15 years that hasn’t had one. I’m guessing that’s not the case in the US?

  34. Chris M says:

    > I wonder if this is a US vs Europe thing? Here in the UK, the steering lock is commonplace and everyone knows the procedure.

    Agreed. I’m in the UK and I was a little confused as to why this made ‘front page news’, so to speak.

    [The “front page news” wasn’t “Hey, there’s this thing called a steering lock.” It’s “How do you unstick a jammed steering lock?” -Raymond]
  35. Mark says:

    There’s nothing unusual about the steering lock here in the US. I’m surprised so many people on here have never heard of it. Every car I’ve ever seen (except my own that I have right now, ironically) has a steering lock. As for mine, everyone who has seen it tells me it’s odd that there’s no steering lock.

  36. James Schend says:

    Steering locks are on virtually every car in the US made since the 80s, so they’re common here. I think the difference you’re noticing is the difference between "people being taught about the steering lock" and not, not a US/UK thing.

  37. Anthony Wieser says:

    The 1969 Buick Electra 225 I first drove had a steering lock!

  38. James Kilner says:

    Just to clarify my comments.  I am also from the UK.  When I mentioned about ‘learning’ about the steering lock it wasn’t a formal lesson.  I didn’t get in the car for my first lesson with the driving instructor and he said, "OK, lesson 1, steering lock. Blah blah blah".  It was just something that was mentioned.  Given it’s a feature that appears on nearly every car, it’s kind of useful to know about it.  Kind of like knowing which pedals do what.

  39. manyirons says:

    The thing I’m finding fascinating is how so many of you think this stuff is something you should be taught.  Yet if you are a reader of "The Old New Thing" you’re expected to magically know endless obscure and unintuitive details about a system far more complicated and far less common than a car.  Some of you live in a very small world indeed.  But don’t get all defensive about it; we’re all important to each other.

    If people would just stop stealing stuff we wouldn’t need all of these complications.  The existence of automobile security is just a symptom of more fundamental problems.  We should really take care not to go overboard with it.  Introducing safety issues while trying to prevent theft seems crazy to me.

  40. bramster says:

    "I love my new car.  When I get in my car, I push a button and the car starts no matter what the steering wheel decides it wants to do.  The IS350 is a fantastic vehicle."

    Wow! My first car, a 1949 Mercury (actually, it was the Canadian version, the Monarch) had a push button start.  

  41. brian says:

    Steering locks are dangerous if you ever lose power while driving, ie your alternator dies causing your batty to go, at night, on a freeway, unable to turn the wheel.

  42. Dan McCarty says:

    Just a quick summary of all the comments:

    • 50% "Hey this just happened to me the other day I love learning about steering locks!"
    • 50% "You young idiots we’ve had steering locks for years please turn in your adult card now"

    It’s fitting that this blog is called the "Old New" Thing.  Here is something old, yet new.

  43. Mikkin says:

    Old New Thing indeed! I am old enough to remember when steering locks were new, but then I am also old enough to remember when nobody in the neighborhood locked their house unless they were going out of town. I don’t know where to find that kind of neighborhood anymore.

    Those of you who are dating yourselves, instead of dating the other 50% (or the same 50%, whatever): try wiggling it a little.

  44. Jonathan says:

    @brian

    Except that simply losing power shouldn’t cause the steering wheel lock to engage.  

    You’d have to turn the key all the way back to OFF/LOCK for the steering lock to engage. [Hint: Don’t do that while moving]

    (It’s a purely mechanical lock, and doesn’t rely on the electrical system)

    Now, that said, you likely would lose power steering assist if the electrical system failed.*  But increases the force you have to use to move the wheel, it doesn’t eliminate steering.

    *(Even if it is belt driven, on a gasoline powered car losing electrical will kill the engine [no spark] and stop the belt).

  45. Cody says:

    Also, cocking your wheel to one side risks damaging the tie rods and other steering components if you have power steering, your wheel gets stuck, and you’re doing it while the car is still running.  Your car rolling into the street, however, does still tend to cause more damage.

  46. Lorne Laliberte says:

    Although jiggling certainly works :), if you want to be a bit more…scientific about it, I think what you want to do is take the pressure off the steering lock mechanism, so the ignition key has enough "slack" to turn. Which (in my experience anyway) means turning the wheel a bit more in the same direction.

  47. David Walker says:

    I couldn’t get a rental car out of Park once, after starting the engine, until I happened to accidentally step on the brake.  Then I realized that the shift lever had a "brake-lock" where it wouldn’t shift out of Park until the brake pedal was pressed.

    I thought "the rental counter person should have told me that" but then I decided that maybe a decal in the car describing the situation would have been better… or maybe this will become common enough that everyone will learn it.  My 1999 car doesn’t do this.

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