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Are Quick-Release Steering Wheels Legal? Here’s The Truth

Interior of an NA Mazda Miata convertible with a quick-release aftermarket steering wheel attached

If you’re looking into different ways to mod your car, you probably stumbled across a quick-release steering wheel at some point. They’re a nice-looking mod that’s easy enough to install, and the result can be a more comfortable driving experience.

The bad news is that quick-release steering wheels are illegal in all 50 states in any vehicle built after 1990. These steering wheels don’t have airbags, which is legally required if you want to drive your car on a public street. You can still use a quick-release steering wheel in a track car or any vehicle built before 1990, but it becomes increasingly less safe driving around without an airbag in your steering wheel.

The only question is: are quick-release steering wheels legal? I found a lot of misleading information out there, so it’s time for the truth. I’ll answer this question, teach you about how these steering wheels work, and explain some benefits that drive modders to install them in their build.

What Is a Quick-Release Steering Wheel?

I was at a red light recently and the car next to me honked at me and then waved with their steering wheel in their hand before driving away. My mom was with me in my car, and she couldn’t understand what she just saw.

After I was done laughing, I explained that they had a quick-release steering wheel and that gag was their way of having fun, as dangerous as it is.

As the name suggests, a quick-release steering wheel is a steering wheel that can be removed and installed really fast. With your traditional steering wheel, it might take a few hours to uninstall the steering wheel and leave the car with it in your hands.

With a quick-release steering wheel, it takes a few seconds to uninstall it and remove it from the vehicle.

Mechanically, it’s interesting to see how these steering wheels work. They have a special hub and connector that allow the steering wheel to rigidly attach to your car, but there’s also a quick-release button somewhere that lets you remove the wheel.

To remove the wheel, it typically takes a full rotation of the steering wheel while holding down the quick-release button. Once you do that, the steering wheel comes away from your steering column.

The mechanism that lets you take off and put on your wheel so quickly can depend on which wheel assembly you go for. In almost all of the legitimate options, there’s a button, lever, or switch somewhere that needs to be operated before the wheel is removed. Otherwise, the steering wheel can come off while you’re driving.

It’s worth mentioning that a quick-release steering wheel is designed to be very lightweight and less expensive. As a result, manufacturers don’t include airbags in their steering wheels. On top of that, there’s also a liability issue that could get the manufacturer in trouble if there were airbag issues in the future.

Almost across the board, aftermarket quick-release steering wheels don’t have airbags built into them. This idea is going to come up a lot later in this article, so keep it in mind.

Inside a racecar interior cockpit with a Performance RZ steering wheel attached to a quick-release hub

The Benefits of a Quick-Release Steering Wheel

Before talking about the legality of these steering wheels, let me tell you some of the big reasons why people install them in the first place.

Better Aesthetics

From everyone I’ve talked to, the biggest reason to swap to a quick-release steering wheel is to improve the aesthetics of your interior. You don’t realize what an impact your steering wheel has on the look and feel of your interior until you swap it out.

You could replace a boring, plastic steering wheel with something lightweight, sporty-looking, and visually striking.

If you see a heavily modded car in the parking lot, try to peek in the window at its steering wheel. I’m willing to bet that they have a quick-release steering wheel, especially with all the popularity they’ve been gaining lately.

To understand why someone would install a quick-release steering wheel, compare it to a big spoiler on the back of a car, fuzzy dice on the rearview mirror, or custom imagery on their car wrap — it looks cool and better fits the driver’s aesthetic.

Allows Racers to Get in and Out Quicker

In practice, quick-release steering wheels are incredibly useful outside of standard street driving. On the racetrack, every legitimate vehicle on the track will have some form of the quick-release steering wheel.

Why? It allows drivers to quickly exit the vehicle. There is very little room around the driver once they’re sitting in the seat. As a result, the driver wouldn’t be able to comfortably swing their legs under the steering wheel in order to leave the car quickly.

Instead, they’ll use a quick-release steering wheel. When they pit the car, they’ll remove the steering wheel as they leave the car. This frees up a ton of leg space in the car for them to easily get out.

Some track cars don’t even have doors that open, the driver needs to crawl through the window. In this case, the steering wheel greatly limits their movement. Again, a quick-release steering wheel will let them get the wheel out of their way so they can get out of the car.

Interior of a race car cockpit with the quick-release steering wheel removed

A Form of Anti-Theft

Imagine you’re a car thief and you break into a car, sit in the driver’s seat, and can’t find the steering wheel anywhere. From people I’ve talked to, this is the second biggest reason why they have a quick-release steering wheel.

A lot of people who have one installed will take the wheel with them after parking for the night. If someone hotwires their car, which is possible on modern cars, they can’t go anywhere.

You can brute force the steering hub with your hand or a pair of pliers to replace the steering wheel, but car thieves might not know that. If nothing else, a lack of a steering wheel might be confusing enough to cause the car thief to move on to the next vehicle in the lot.

It’s a Simple Mod

Truthfully, the installation of a quick-release steering wheel is one of the quickest mechanical mods you can make on your vehicle. I recently helped a friend install one in their Miata, and it barely took us an hour to do it.

We only needed two tools for the installation, and it was pretty straightforward.

As people further mod their vehicles, it’s always a relief to find something so simple. With this mod, the installation is easy, but the results are incredibly noticeable to people inside the car.

It’s Satisfying and Fun

To be honest, there’s something really satisfying about clicking a quick-release steering wheel into place. One of my buddies has a quick-release wheel in his car, and he constantly takes it off and puts it on whenever he’s waiting in a parking lot.

There are plenty of other options that are less expensive and safer to use that come with the same level of satisfaction, but it’s hard to deny how much fun it is to play with a quick-release steering wheel (when it is safe to do so, NEVER on the road while the car is on).

Interior of a drift sports car with an aftermarket quick-release steering wheel, roll cage, and drift handbrake

Are Quick-Release Steering Wheels Legal?

Now it’s time for the million-dollar question: are quick-release steering wheels legal?

In every modern car, yes, it is illegal to use a quick-release steering wheel. However, the law has nothing to do with the fact that the steering wheels can be removed and installed easily. Only California and New York specifically ban quick-release steering wheels.

All of the other states say that these steering wheels are illegal because they don’t have an airbag. Any car made after 1990 is legally required to have a functioning airbag on the steering wheel in all 50 states.

Since quick-release steering wheels don’t have airbags equipped in them, then they can’t be used on your car.

The caveat is if you have a car before 1990. A 1989 car can legally have a quick-release steering wheel without an airbag since the law excludes them.

Even so, the steering wheel airbag is one of the biggest safety features in a car. It prevents your steering wheel from becoming a weapon when you get hit. Instead of your face smashing into the metal, wooden, or plastic steering wheel at high speeds, a cushion of air will protect your face.

My two cents? Quick-release steering wheels are really cool, but functionally they’re a terrible idea. I’d rather keep my face intact after an accident, so I would always suggest using a standard, airbag-filled steering wheel (especially since it’s illegal to use quick-release steering wheels in modern cars).

Conclusion

I just went into detail about quick-release steering wheels. You learned what they are, how they work, why people love them, and the legality behind them. Unfortunately, they’re illegal to have on any car made after 1990 since they don’t have a functional airbag installed.

If you have any other car questions, explore the rest of my blog. Take a look at the products I highly recommend, and leave any comments below if you have questions or want to see a certain article in the future.

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References:

Motor Hills

Motor Biscuit

Vehicle Answers

Way.com

Quick Release Steering Wheel and Its Importance

Get Jerry

What Is a Quick-Release Steering Wheel?

Ernest Martynyuk

An automotive enthusiast who's been tinkering with vehicles since I was 15-years old. Repairing automotive electronics has been my main job for over a decade now and have a passion for everything technical regarding cars.

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