Spotting the Seven Signs of Bad Wheel Alignment

Acting on these tips can improve your gas mileage, save your tires and upgrade your safety.

If you've ever pushed an out-of-whack shopping cart down a supermarket aisle, then you know the importance of wheel alignment. On your vehicle out-of-whack wheels mean more than a mere annoyance. Poor alignment creates higher rolling resistance. Higher rolling resistance means greater wear on the tires (bad tread wear patterns) and lower fuel economy. With the price of gasoline nowadays, can you really afford to bleed off more miles per gallon than absolutely necessary? To get the highest gas mileage, as well as the longest tire life and best ride and handling from your vehicle, you need to recognize when you need a wheel alignment.

The AAA suggests having the alignment checked, whenever you have your tires rotated, or at least once a year. If the roads in your area are not in the greatest condition, it can throw the alignment off sooner than you think. Hitting into a pothole or butting a tire hard into the curb while trying to parallel park is usually all it takes.

Here are seven signs that suggest you need an alignment fix:

Pulling right or left. Does your vehicle tend to veer in one direction when you cruise a straight, smooth road? Do you need to keep a slight pressure on the steering wheel to keep the vehicle straight?

If a vehicle's wheels are badly out of alignment, you'll notice the vehicle will automatically try to turn to one side or another. Sometimes the pull is obvious, while other times it is a natural drift in one direction. If you have to wrestle with the wheel, it's time for an alignment, so that the wheels all point in the right directions.

There's also passive pulling. With a lesser alignment problem, the vehicle may not actively pull, but when you let the car go straight ahead, without a hand on the steering wheel, the vehicle may naturally drift off to one direction or another. This is also a sign of an alignment problem.

Try this experiment. On a smooth straightaway with no other traffic around, take your hands off the steering wheel a bit. Keep them poised just above the rim, so that you can grab it instantly to regain control. Although most roads have a crown in the center for runoff, which may subtly affect the vehicle's path, your vehicle should continue its course fairly well without you. If it doesn't, then you may have an under-inflated tire on one side, or you may need a wheel alignment.

Poor recovery on turns. After you make a turn, the steering wheel should return to center promptly, without feeling loose or difficult to control. If it doesn't, then you may have loose steering or suspension components. But in most cases, you probably just need an alignment.

A cockeyed logo or crooked steering wheel. The vehicle maker's logo in the center of your steering wheel should look perfectly horizontal when you're driving straight ahead. A cockeyed logo - in other words, a steering wheel that is a few degrees off the 12 o'clock position - may indicate a problem with steering components or (more likely) with the wheel alignment. Keep an eye on this tell tale signal of an alignment problem.

Sloppy steering feel. Hard steering or shimmying in the wheel can arise from a number of problems, including misalignment.

Uneven wear. Uneven tire wear probably provides the surest sign of misaligned wheels. Increased wear on the inside edge compared with the outside edge (or vice versa), or right-side tires showing different wear patterns than those on the left clearly indicate that you need to see a technician, pronto. The front tires should be worn similarly, just as the rear tires should be worn similarly. Misaligned wheels produce uneven wear patterns on the tires, which wears them out faster and increases the risk of a tire blowout.

According to Goodyear, wheels off by as little as one-eighth of an inch in "toe" (the angle at which the front of a tire points in or out, when viewed from above) or one degree in "camber" (the tilt of the top of the tire toward or away from the vehicle, when viewed from the front) can increase wear by 20 percent on one edge.

On the other hand, significant wear on both edges of a single tire but not in the center of the tread face usually indicates serious under inflation. The tire's sidewalls support the vehicle's weight and the center of the tread face cups upward, leading to the characteristic two-edge wear pattern. Unfortunately, by the time you notice such uneven wear patterns with your naked eye, you may be too late to save the tires. That's why a good tread gauge becomes so important. Use it regularly to measure the depth of the tread at three places straight along the tread face - near the outside edge, in the center and near the inside edge.

Be sure to also check for tire "ribs" worn on one edge by running your fingertips across the tread face, taking care to feel how the inside and outside edges of each rib compare. (Basically, ribs are the islands of rubber sticking up among the "void areas" or spaces formed by the tread.) Does it feel uniform across the entire tread face? Improper alignment can sometimes lead to "feathering" on only one edge of the ribs.

Crab walking. The next time someone drops you off someplace, watch the rear of the vehicle as it drives away. Does the body seem to move a bit sideways, even though the wheels are pointed straight? Answering "yes" may indicate structural damage in the aftermath of a collision, or the need to adjust the alignment of all four wheels with respect to the center-line of the vehicle.

Vibrations. Improper alignment causes the wheels to pull against each other, which usually produces vibrations in the steering wheel or the entire vehicle. If your vehicle is shaking while you are driving, have the alignment checked at an auto repair shop.

Benefits of Tire Alignment

Bad tire alignment can lead to a lot of different problems on a vehicle. Here are some reasons it's not a good idea to keep on driving without a good tire alignment from a professional shop:

It aids tire rotation. Even though you may take care to rotate tires every 7,000 miles, if the car is out of alignment, they can still wear wrong and get shredded in a relatively short time.
It satisfies warranty requirements. If your tires carry a warranty or "lifetime certificate," check the fine print. It's likely that it includes the requirement of getting periodic alignments to keep tires from wearing incorrectly. Don't let your warranty be voided by a lack of proper maintenance.
It improves handling. A car with a proper wheel alignment is easier to drive. When dealing with road obstacles such as potholes (which also throw out the alignment even more), you're one step ahead if you have correct wheel alignment on your vehicle.
It reduces wear on steering column. Bad alignment causes wear on a lot of car parts, not just the tires. In extreme situations, a vehicle out of alignment can shake parts and cause even more deterioration. Your best bet is to do periodic alignments so that car systems don't suffer from being jolted around.
Improves gas mileage. Like numerous other car problems, bad alignment can lead to lower MPG (miles per gallon) as the vehicle puts more energy into its trajectory than it should. Don't let improper wheel alignment work against the overall health of your vehicle and limit the MPG it gets on the road.

Is It Time for a Wheel Alignment?

When your car rolled off the manufacturer assembly line, it came preset with special angles that position your tires correctly. And for good reason. In order for your vehicle to travel the way it's supposed to, it will need precise alignment. Misalignment can lead to uneven tire wear, poor handling and shorter tire life. Tires are expensive. Keeping them aligned isn't.

If you are noticing any of these alignment issues, get your ride pointing in the right direction again. A wheel alignment ensures optimal drivability. Scheduling a wheel alignment at an auto shop is typically recommended every 10,000 miles to ensure optimal fuel efficiency, handling, tire life and safety. To schedule a car wheel alignment service with a certified mechanic, come to Auto & RV Specialists.

If you are unsure about your current alignment, please give us a call. Tire misalignment can be so subtle, you may not even realize it. Luckily for your wheels, we have the precision equipment and expertise to check your alignment and fix it if needed. Schedule an alignment check today.


Auto & RV Specialists is your one-stop shop for all your automotive and RV needs. The work is done right the first time by qualified techs at a competitive price. A fixture of the Rancho Cucamonga community for more than 25 years, we're more than a local business... we're friends and neighbors. We treat our customers the way we'd want to be treated ourselves... truthful straight talk. Come check us out and let us convince you.


3 Responses

  1. I didn't know that having your wheels out of alignment can drag the rest of your car down, and waste gas. That is great to know I should have the alignment on my wheels checked once a year! I wouldn't want to waste gas with my wheels being out of alignment! Thanks for the information!
  2. I never knew that it's recommended to schedule a wheel alignment for your RV at an auto shop every 10,000 miles to ensure the efficiency and safety of your RV's tires. My husband told me that our RV's miles are not at 13,000. Since we use our RV for long distance travels, it will make sense for us to ensure that our RV is always safe to use for our family. I will make sure to visit an RV shop to have our RV inspected and repaired if needed. Thanks!
  3. I like how you mentioned that a car with a proper wheel alignment is easier to drive. My husband told me yesterday that our car drifts to one side, and he's worried that this will cause an accident. I'll inform him to bring the car to an automotive shop to determine the issue.

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