Most of us are used to being able to enjoy smooth, precise movement when we turn the steering wheel in our vehicle. That is made possible by a combination of different components, including the splines that mate the steering column to the intermediate shaft, the universal joint for the steering wheel, and the steering damper.
A steering damper is really nothing more than a stabilizer designed to reduce or eliminate unwanted movement (called wobble in some circles). Wobble in the steering wheel makes handling much less precise and can cause dangerous situations. However, you generally only find these in larger trucks and SUVs, particularly those with larger tires.
Larger tires create a wobble or shimmy in the vehicle. It affects not only your handling, but pretty much every component from the shocks and struts to the wheel bearings and even the exhaust. Too much vibration will eventually damage anything.
The steering damper also provides a defense against arm and hand fatigue. If left unchecked, the vibration from tire/road contact would travel up the steering column to your arms, and the force required to hold the wheel steady would be significantly greater. The steering damper works to reduce those vibrations and eliminate arm fatigue.
While you will still be able to drive if your steering damper begins to fail, you’ll find the experience less than ideal. Watch for the following symptoms to indicate that you may have a problem with the damper:
- Much more road vibration felt than usual (this may also indicate a broken belt in a tire)
- Steering wheel doesn’t turn all the way
- Clunking noise when turning the wheel
- Steering wheel feels like it binds intermittently
If you’re experiencing any symptoms related to a failing steering damper, it may be time to get checked it checked. A certified mechanic can come inspect the system and have your steering damper replaced if necessary.