My steering wheel locks and the dealer won't fix it. What do I do?

Dear Car Talk

Dear Car Talk | Aug 01, 2005

Dear Tom and Ray:

The steering wheel on my 2003 Acura RSX has locked on me while driving three times now. I took it in to the dealership, and they could not find anything wrong and thus were unable to fix it. I have to quickly stop the car and turn off the ignition, and then when I restart the car, the steering wheel unlocks. The last time, I almost hit a tree. Help before I kill myself or, even worse, someone else. -- Wyatt

TOM: Geez, Wyatt. I'm stunned. It's absolutely unconscionable of the Acura dealer to send you away without fixing this, or -- at the very least -- replacing the parts that are most likely to cause this kind of problem.

RAY: You can't drive this car, Wyatt. To get the dealership's attention, it sounds like you're going to have to engage the services of a lawyer. It's going to cost you a few bucks, but which is more important -- your money or your life?

TOM: I'm thinking ... I'm thinking.

RAY: Have the car towed back to the dealer, and have the lawyer send a certified letter to the general manager of the dealership, with a cc to American Honda (which owns Acura). The letter should say: "My client cannot drive this vehicle in its current condition because it is likely that his death and/or the deaths of other innocent drivers will result. Since this car is under warranty, we insist that you keep it until it is fixed, and provide alternative transportation for my client until an Acura factory representative certifies that the repairs have been successfully completed."

TOM: Then ask for the names of anyone with an ownership stake in the dealership and a list of other properties they own, so that the transfer of ownership to your heirs will go more smoothly in the event of your death. That should at least get their attention.

RAY: The most likely problem is in the ignition and cylinder lock assembly -- that's the thing you put your key into. When you remove the key, there's a pin that's allowed to slide into one of several holes in the steering column. It's an anti-theft measure. I'd have to guess that the pin is being allowed to slide in and lock the wheel at other times -- like when you're changing lanes on the highway!

TOM: That could be caused by a bad ignition lock; it could be the shift interlock mechanism in the transmission, which allows the wheel to lock when you're in Park; or it could be a problem with the steering column. If they can't figure it out, they should replace all of those things, because lives are at stake.

RAY: I'm betting against the rack and pinion, because the wheel reliably unlocks when you turn off the ignition and then turn it back on. But it is a distant possibility, too.

TOM: Another thing for the dealer to consider is whether the car has ever been stolen or repossessed. If someone once tried to pop the ignition and start this car without the key, that might be how the ignition lock got damaged.

RAY: But -- we're serious, Wyatt. You absolutely can't drive this car until you're certain it's fixed. In the meantime, report this problem to NHTSA's Auto Safety Hotline at 1-888-327-4236. They keep track of safety-related complaints and have the power to issue recalls in case other RSX owners start reporting this problem, too. Let us know what happens.

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