Signs You May Have a Bad Wheel Bearing

Close-Up of Man Driving
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A bad wheel bearing can be tough to diagnose, but with a little patience, you can get a good idea whether or not a wheel bearing is a problem with your car or truck's ride quality. When it comes to diagnosing car problems, it takes a trained ear. You may not be able to tell exactly what is wrong with your suspension, or where the problem lies, but nobody knows better than you do if things aren't sounding or feeling right as you drive down the road. Your car or truck relies on a complex system of springs, shocks, joints, and bearings to keep it going straight down the road as smoothly as possible. When every instrument in this complicated orchestra of balance is working together, you barely know the system exists. Steering is responsive, ride quality is velvety, your brakes are smooth and strong -- this is when all is well.

Any problem with suspension or steering has a good chance of starting out small. Again, you know your car, so if something just doesn't feel right to you, it could be the beginning of a suspension problem. Things like wandering steering, clunks as you go over bumps at low speed, or vibrations are all signs that something in your suspension system may be wearing out or need servicing. 

Signs That You May Need Wheel Bearing Replacement

The first indication of a bad wheel bearing is usually sound. As your bearing wears out, things get loose, which causes vibration at the wheel hub. This isn't usually enough vibration to shake the car or make the steering wheel wobble, but it's enough vibration to translate into a low-frequency hum or droning sound, that you'll hear inside the car. Have you ever heard that buzzing sound coming from the oversized tires on a Jeep or lifted pickup? It's really similar to that (which brings me to another point, see below). The sound will change as you go fast or slow. Also, and this is a good indicator of bearing failure, the sound will often change when you turn slightly one way or the other. This shifts the weight from one side of the car to the other, relieving the stress on the bearing temporarily. If your bearing is very worn, try jacking the suspected corner if the car up, grab the tire at the top and bottom, and see if it has a little back and forth wiggle to it accompanied by a slight knocking sound. This is not good. 

When Is a Buzzing Sound Not a Bad Wheel Bearing? 

Like most things in automotive troubleshooting, there are usually many questions to every answer. The answer here is a buzzing sound coming from underneath the car, which changes frequency as I drive faster or slower. The question we're addressing is, "Do I have a bad wheel bearing?" This may be the right question to your answer, but it could also be "Are my tires wearing unevenly?" or "Do I need an alignment?" The point in all of this question-answer nonsense is you should never rush out and start replacing things based on a small amount of information. A qualified shop may actually use microphones to determine which wheel is making the sound. 

Can I Drive If My Car Has a Bad Wheel Bearing?

It's never a good idea to take a "wait and see" attitude with your wheel bearings. On many cars, the bearing can go from bad to really, really bad in a hurry, resulting in a wheel and hub assembly that falls off, often at high speed. This can be catastrophic and life-threatening. It's better to have it looked at for safety.