Brake disc issues: Steering wheel shakes while braking

Updated: March 04, 2020
Many motorists have experienced this problem: The car drives normally, but as soon as you start braking, the steering wheel starts shaking. Often, it's more noticeable when braking on the highway at 60-70 mph. The brake pedal may pulsate too.
Steering wheel shakes while braking Unevenly-worn or warped brake discs (rotors) can cause the steering wheel to shake when brakes are applied.

The most common cause of this issue that we see is warped or unevenly-worn front brake rotors (discs), although your mechanic will need to inspect your car to confirm it. Problems with tires or steering system, although less common, can also produce similar symptoms or multiply them.

What causes the steering wheel to shake if the brake discs are warped? The brake disc or rotor is the part that is squeezed by brake pads when braking. The working surface of new brake rotors is uniformed all around and the brake force remains stable when the brakes are applied while moving.
Rust spot on a brake rotorRust spot on the brake disc (rotor)
An unevenly-worn, warped, or partially rusted rotor as in this photo has thicker and thinner spots, so the brake force changes while braking as the rotor spins. This change in the brake force in the front brakes causes the steering wheel to shake when brakes are applied.

This issue can happen with front and rear brake rotors, but the problem with front rotors is more likely to cause the steering wheel to shake. Some cars have drum brakes on the rear axle. Warped or rusted rear drums can also cause brake pedal pulsation.
What can cause brake rotors to wear unevenly? This can happen for a variety of reasons. Very often it happens when the car is parked outside for extended periods of time without moving.
New brake rotorNew brake rotor
Brake rotor rust spotsRust spots in the rotor
Cracks on a drive beltChecking rotort runout

This causes portions of the brake rotors to rust, especially in rainy weather as in the photo above. That's why you often feel the steering shake after the car was parked for a long time.
The rotors can also warp as a result of excessive heat, generated while braking. This usually happens in heavy cars, trucks, minivans and SUVs. Other reasons include low-quality material of the brake rotors or pads, sticky brake calipers, seized caliper pins or improper installation. What is the solution?

The solution is to visit your mechanic and have your brakes properly inspected. Mechanics have special tools to measure the runout and thickness of your brake rotors (or rear drums). The repair will depend on the results of the inspection.
Brake latheBrake lathe.
In some cases, brake rotors (or rear drums) can be machined (resurfaced), in others, they might need to be replaced.

Most automotive shops have a machine called a brake lathe that can cut a thin layer of a brake rotor or drum material to make the working surface even and uniformed. Machining (resurfacing) two rotors can add $40 to $120 to the price of the brake job. Your mechanic may recommend replacing the rotors if they are too thin to be machined, or for other reasons. Often, replacing two rotors costs slightly more than machining them. Replacing rotors is always a preferred option, since machining makes the rotors thinner. Brake pads and other components may also need to be replaced, depending on the condition.

Can you continue driving if the steering wheel shakes while braking? The only way to get the answer to this question is to have your brakes inspected by a qualified mechanic. Car manufacturers provide specifications and safe wear limits for brake components.
If any of the parts (e.g. brake rotors) are worn beyond the safe limit, the vehicle is deemed unsafe to drive.

How expensive is it to replace brake pads and rotors? The replacement of the brake pads and rotors in an average car costs from $400 to $750 per axle. Replacing rotors only is cheaper, although it's not always possible.
It's always recommended to use only high-quality or OEM parts. Keeping your brakes in top shape is an investment in your safety and the safety of your passengers.