If you have to forcibly hold the steering wheel in place when you're driving to prevent it from pulling to one side, you might think the wheels just need to be aligned. Getting an alignment is a part of routine maintenance to ensure the wheels are properly angled so the vehicle drives straight. If this is the cause for the stubborn steering, you may also notice vibrations. In some cases, an alignment may fix a jerky steering wheel, but what if it doesn't?
The steering column could be leaking power steering fluid, which would require you to exert more energy to turn the steering wheel. This fluid needs to be flushed and replaced periodically to prevent unnecessary damage to the different components of the steering system. It is also imperative to check the o-rings, seals and internal parts, as they can contaminate the steering fluid. This, in turn, can damage the steering pump, which is not cheap to replace. If you suspect a leak, you can top off the power steering fluid as needed to keep things running smoothly until you can fix the leak, but it is best to address the issue as soon as possible.
Once you've eliminated the possibility that fluid is causing the problem, you can check the steering pump. Pop the hood and have an assistant turn the steering wheel from side to side while the engine is running. Listen closely for squealing or whining noises that coincide with the motions. If you hear these sounds, the belt that powers the steering pump could be loose, worn or damaged. These sounds may also indicate there is air in the system. Try turning the wheel as far as it will go in each direction a few times - if this doesn't put a stop to the sound, air is not the problem.
Another reason you could be fighting to control the steering wheel could be due to worn parts, such as the steering gear, ball sockets, tie rods or even the suspension system. If you suspect this, you can jack the car up to get a better idea of which parts are problematic. While you're underneath the car, which should definitely not be running at this point, have your assistant manually move the tires back and forth to simulate making a turn. Watch the steering assembly for loose parts, and replace anything that moves out of sync with the rest of the setup.
The brakes may be the source of the problem, as well. Brake calipers that force the brake pads against the rotors even after the brakes have been disengaged. This not only wears down the brake pads and the rotors, but can pull the steering wheel to one side. One brake may stick more than the other, slowing the wheel significantly.
It is imperative to determine the source of the steering issue as soon as possible to make sure your car is safe to operate. If your steering wheel tends to pull to one side and you need to forcibly hold it straight, one slip could rip the steering wheel from your hand and put you at increased risk of crashing. Plus, ignoring the problem may result in more extensive damage to your vehicles steering, brakes and even transmission.