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Can You Drive Without Power Steering?

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Once something breaks in our cars, we are faced with the decision of getting the issue fixed immediately or putting the repairs off for another time and hoping for the best.

We live busy lives, therefore not everyone has the luxury of having enough money and time to go to the mechanic for every single issue, however, some car issues need to be repaired immediately.

Is a failed power steering one of those issues? And, can you drive without power steering?

What Is Power Steering?

Power steering was introduced at the start of the 20 century and has played a key role in reducing the number of accidents on the road.

In short, power steering is an advanced steering system that significantly reduces the effort required to steer the front wheels of a vehicle by using hydraulic assistance, electric assistance or a combination of the two. Today, more than 90% of the cars on the road are equipped with power steering.

Power steering offers the following advantages:

  • Reduced steering efforts. The steering wheel on a car without power steering is very hard to turn, especially under 25 mph. Power steering makes the steering wheel light and significantly reduces fatigue to the driver.
  • Quick steering response. Nowadays, it’s common to get into a dangerous situation that requires quick steering reflexes on a daily basis. The addition of power steering makes it much easier to make quick steering wheel turns in order to avoid danger, thus decreasing the number of accidents on the road.
  • Steering wheel return. You’ve probably noticed that after a turn, the steering wheel returns to the straight position on its own. A car equipped with power steering has a significantly better steering wheel return.
  • Bump steer. While bumps on the road get absorbed and dampened by the suspension, a good amount of force is still transferred to the steering system, which in turn steers the car against the driver’s will. Power steering provides significantly more resistance to bump steer, making the car more stable at high speeds.

How Does Power Steering Work?

There are three types of power steering systems:

Hydraulic Power Steering

Hydraulic power steering is the most common. As the name implies, it uses hydraulic force (pressurized bright pink hydraulic steering fluid) to multiply the input force a driver makes when turning the steering wheel.

Power Steering Pump on a Honda Accord
Power Steering Pump on a Honda Accord

When the engine is running, hydraulic power steering fluid is constantly pressurized by the power steering pump which runs via the serpentine belt.

Once the driver rotates the steering wheel, the high-pressure hydraulic steering fluid is redirected into the hydraulic chamber of the steering rack by the rotary valve.

The hydraulic fluid then enters the hydraulic cylinder, which in turn applies pressure over the cylinder’s piston.

The hydraulic fluid then pushes the piston and the steering rack moves accordingly. Because both ends of the steering rack are connected to the car wheels, when the steering rack moves right or left, so do the car wheels.

Electric Power Steering

The electric power steering is the most modern power steering system. This system offers decreased fuel consumption and reliability, in addition to more refined steering and handling overall.

As the name suggests, the electric power system is fully electronic and is comprised of four main components: torque sensor, electric control unit (ECU), electric motor and the reduction gear.

The input through the steering wheel by the driver is constantly monitored by the electronic control unit. The ECU constantly monitors the direction, speed and torque (steering effort) of the steering wheel, in addition to vehicle speed.

The data is constantly processed by the ECU and is sent to the electric motor which moves the steering rack and turns the wheels.

Hybrid Power Steering

The hybrid power steering system works exactly like the hydraulic, with the only difference being that the power steering pump is replaced with an electric power steering pump. Because an electric pump does not depend on the RPM of the engine to pressurize the system, it’s much more responsive and effective at a standstill and lower speeds.

Symptoms of Power Steering Failure

Knowing the signs of power steering failure is important in order to prevent potential accidents and problems on the road.

Hard Steering

If you’ve noticed that the steering wheel is significantly harder to turn, then there is definitely a problem with the power steering system. Hard to turn steering wheel may be accompanied by pump noise. In that case, low power steering fluid, loose serpentine belt or a bad pump is a likely culprit.

Whining Noise

A whining or a groaning noise when turning the steering wheel often means that the power steering system is low on fluid or that the power steering pump is going bad. If the power steering fluid is low, there’s probably a leak somewhere in the system.

Low Fluid Level

Power steering fluid should be checked often. If the fluid is low often, there is a leak somewhere in the system.

Power Steering Reservoir
Power steering reservoirs come with a dipstick or side upper and lower level markings

You can spot leaks after the car has been parked for some time. Once you move it, you should see oily splashes of pink oily fluid. Compare the smell and color of the fluid with the power steering fluid found in your car’s power steering fluid reservoir to confirm.

The Look of The Fluid

The color of your car’s power steering fluid can tell a lot about the power steering system. New fluid is clear with a pink tone to it and has a mild smell.

Power steering fluid that has turned dark indicates oxidation and should be replaced. Bubbles in the fluid indicate water or air in the power steering lines, while metallic flakes usually mean a failing pump.

Can You Drive Without Power Steering?

You CAN drive without power steering but you DEFINITELY SHOULDN’T.

While the steering will still be fully operational, you’ll soon find out that under 25mph the steering wheel is extremely hard to turn.

Making quick maneuvers and parking will become nearly impossible, which makes driving with failed power steering very dangerous and illegal! So, in other words – don’t do it.

Sure, a lot of cars in the day didn’t have power steering and you could drive them without any problems but that’s not the case with modern vehicles. Nowadays, the power steering isn’t geared like the cars in the 60s, which makes it very tough and nearly impossible to turn when stationary.

Driving Without Power Steering Is a Safety Hazard

While driving without power steering is certainly possible, as cars are designed to continue working even if the power steering has failed, it’s definitely not safe.

By driving without power steering you’re risking your life and the lives of others. You won’t be able to steer quickly enough in an emergency situation as you need to overpower the hydraulics and the power steering system to turn the wheels.

Not only are you limiting the maneuverability of your car, but there’s also a liability issue involved. If you were to get into an accident, and it was discovered that the accident happened due to your negligence to keep the car working, there is a big chance that you’ll get sued. If that’s not enough, the insurance company definitely won’t cover the damages.  

Avoiding Repair Leads to Increased Costs Down the Road

Now, it’s common sense that driving without power steering is a safety hazard but it’s also a money hazard.

Driving with a failed power steering system will only cause further damage to it. For example, if you continue to drive with a leak in your power steering system a simple cracked hose could turn into a failed pump due to fluid starvation.

That’s at least hundreds of dollars in repairs if not taken care of early. 

What to Do When Power Steering Fails?

First, don’t panic. If you’re in a busy area, let the other drivers know that you’ve got a problem by turning on your hazards and honking your horn if you feel like it’s necessary.

It’s going to be really difficult but move your car over to the side of the road or somewhere safe like a parking lot.

Once you’re parked in a safe spot, open the hood and check the level of your power steering fluid. If it’s low, chances are you can get back home by refiling the fluid.

But if the reservoir is full, I’ve got bad news for you: it’s probably time to call a tow truck.

Final Thoughts

The power steering system is essential in modern vehicles. It gives us the ability to accurately and effortlessly control the car, however, the system is not immune to breakdown.

Luckily, the car’s steering system is designed to work even without power steering but that doesn’t mean it’s a good idea to keep driving without power steering.

Driving without power steering is dangerous to you, the people around you and your wallet. It’s always a good idea to get the car fixed before its too late.

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