The steering damper, or steering stabilizer as it's often referred in the off-road community, is a mechanical part that attaches to the steering column and is designed as the name implies; to stabilize the steering. This part is common on trucks, sport utility vehicles and Jeeps with larger circumference or diameter tires, aftermarket suspension upgrades or four wheel drive vehicles. Its primary function is to restrict side-to-side motion in the steering column, so that drivers have a better feel of the roads they drive. It's also a critical safety device, as it can impact the vehicle's stability and driver's ability to negotiation hazardous road conditions.
There are multiple steering dampers available in either OEM or aftermarket applications. The information posted below will provide you with some initial warning signs or symptoms of a bad or failing steering damper; so when noticed will permit you to be proactive about contacting an ASE certified mechanic to inspect and replace the steering damper if needed.
Here are a few warning signs to watch for that might signal your steering damper is going bad or has failed:
1. Steering wheel feels wobbly or loose
Since the steering damper is designed to keep the steering column solid, a wobbly steering wheel is arguably the best indicator of a problem with this component. However, this symptom may also be caused by a broken steering column itself, as internal components inside the steering column are the first line of support to the steering shaft that attaches to the steering wheel. When you feel a loose or wobbly steering wheel, it's always a good idea to contact a mechanic to inspect the problem; as it could also be related to steering box issues that could cause unsafe driving situations.
2. Steering is unstable off-road
The steering damper is not always installed directly from the factory. In fact, most steering stabilizers installed in the US are aftermarket part upgrades. Today's modern trucks and SUV's typically have a steering damper installed for added driving performance on bumpy roads, security and safety. If you notice while driving on dirt roads or aggressive paved road conditions that the steering wheel seems to shake a lot, it's quite possible that you don't have a steering damper installed. If you use your vehicle off road frequently, you might want purchase an aftermarket part or OEM equivalent and have a professional mechanic install it correctly.
3. Leaking hydraulic fluid under the vehicle
A steering stabilizer / damper is mechanical in nature but uses hydraulic fluid to stabilize the steering column and input shaft. If you notice hydraulic fluid on the ground, behind the engine and on the driver side, it's possible that you have a broken seal on the steering damper. When the seal or gaskets break on this unit, it's possible to repair them, but it's sometimes better to replace the damaged unit with a new steering damper that is designed for your specific vehicle.
4. Clunking noise under the vehicle
It's also common for a clunking noise to be heard when the steering damper has failed. This is caused by the rattling of the broken component against the steering column or support joints where it attaches to the body or frame of the vehicle. If you notice this type of sound coming from the floorboard of your truck or SUV, contact a mechanic as soon as possible to inspect the problem.
5. Steering wheel shakes at higher speeds
A final warning sign of a bad steering damper is when the steering wheel vibrates at higher speeds. This symptom is very common with out-of-balance tires, worn out CV joints or warped brake rotors. However, when the steering damper is loose, it can also create a similar situation. If you notice that the steering wheel vibrates above 55 mph, and you've had the suspension and tires inspected; the problem could be with the steering damper.
Anytime you experience any of the above warning signs or symptoms, it's always best to contact a local ASE certified mechanic, who will complete a test drive, inspect the components, and complete the right repairs so that you can continue to drive your vehicle safe with a solid steering damper installed.
This article originally appeared on YourMechanic.com as Symptoms of a Bad or Failing Steering Damper and was authored by Timothy Charlet.