Steering wheel locks designed to thwart thieves

My 16-year-old son, with his hot-off-the-press driver's license, called to tell me his car wouldn't start and that the steering wheel wouldn't budge. After educating him about how the steering wheel will lock and how to undo it, my husband and I discussed the issue. We cannot come up with a reason as to why car manufacturers have steering wheels lock. Can you help?

— DD B., Grants Pass

You know, we were living the gearhead dream as we spent an afternoon of company time researching the history of steering columns. After all that research in pursuit of your answer, we hope to steer you in the right direction — unlike that pesky wheel your son faced.

Locking steering wheels may seem inconvenient for drivers, but they're more inconvenient for thieves. At least that's the reasoning behind item 114 of the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards.

If you've ever wondered why every modern car with an automatic transmission goes in the order of P-R-N-D, or why every newer car chimes when the car door is open and the key is in the ignition, it's specified in these federal regulations that vehicles must meet to be sold in the United States.

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's website, FMVSS 114, subtitled "Theft Protection and Rollaway Prevention," has been effective for passenger cars since Jan. 1, 1970. It specifies requirements for theft protection to prevent accidents caused by unauthorized drivers, and also to reduce the incidence of rollaway parked vehicles with automatic transmissions — one of those requirements being a lock in the steering system that engages when the key is out of the ignition.

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