This is an interesting question, and very common as well. Your vehicle is built so that the steering wheel cannot turn without the key in the ignition. This increases safety and protects you from theft.
Picture a sprocket at the base of the steering column. When you remove the key, a pin springs into place within the tines of the sprocket keeping the wheel from turning side to side. What often happens is that people will use the steering wheel to help themselves out of the car, especially if it sits low to the ground. This pressure on the wheel when the key is being removed puts so much pressure on the locking pin that you won’t have the strength to turn the key and get it to disengage.
As a side note to regular readers. The pin that locks your steering wheel is exactly like the parking pawl that keeps your car from rolling when you put it in park. You can read about that in our article about parking brake usage right here.
Get it running again
To get your key to turn again, there is a simple procedure. The steering wheel normally turns in two directions, as you know, (right and left). If your steering wheel is locked, then one of those two directions will be completely blocked and one direction will be a little springy (wheel wants to spring back). Determine in what direction the steering wheel has a bit of play, then turn and hold the steering wheel with a constant and even pressure in that direction. When you feel the steering wheel resist you have turned hard enough, there is no need for excess force. Now, turn the key with normal pressure. If a locked steering wheel is the problem, this will fix it! If it doesn’t fix your problem, it might be something else, give us a call and we can help you through it.