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My wife was in an accident around August 22, 2017 in our 2010 RAV4. Another driver hit her from the side in the front right corner. The wheel was bent in. We got the car back around Sept 13th. They had done suspension work, replaced the bumper and right quarter panel. They added weights to the wheel to balance it. I’m sure there was other stuff done. I can look it up if you think it would be helpful. I have the paperwork still somewhere.

Anyway, I immediately noticed 2 issues the first time I drove it after getting the car back on/around Sept 13th: there was a vibration when you got up to around 65mph and the steering wheel felt consistently and uncharacteristically tight - I noticed that right away. I called the body shop and complained about both issues on/around Sept 14th. They ordered a wheel to replace the rebalanced right front wheel and I waited a few weeks for them to get that in and deal with insurance. In that time, the steering wheel loosened up and felt somewhat normal (either that or I’d gotten used to it). I got the car back with a new front right wheel in mid-October. They didn’t address the steering and I, for whatever reason, didn’t press the issue. I wish I had...

Around the second week in December, I noticed that there was some play in the steering wheel and an intermittent knocking noise associated with turning the wheel, sometimes accompanied by a snapping “give” to the steering wheel.

I took it into service, not making a connection with the accident. Initially, the service advisor said that the steering shaft was worn, but after they replaced that and the issue wasn’t resolved, they discovered that the power steering drive felt like it had something floating around inside it. They guessed that a tooth on a gear had broken off. The guy was very apologetic - looked shocked even. He said that in his 20 years on the job, he’d never encountered that before, which prompted me to ask, “could this be related to the accident we had a few months ago?” And he seemed like that clicked, as if that explained it, and he said it could. So then my insurance, which had already covered the initial work and the wheel replacement got involved.

Ultimately, my insurance has claimed that the broken tooth in the power steering drive could not be related to the accident because the rod leading into the drive wasn’t bent or damaged. They claimed that, while rare, the broken tooth is a known issue of wear. They also pointed out that I’ve put around 5000 miles on the car since getting it back (which I haven’t confirmed - but am taking their word for it).

There’s no written record that I’ve found of me having complained about the steering the day after we first got the car back and I feel like their explanation doesn’t account for the issue I detected right away with the steering back on Sept 14th-ish. Maybe they don’t believe me. I don’t know. I don’t have any way to prove I complained about the steering other than my testimony, but it’s possible the guy I complained to might remember, though I recall he seemed mainly focused on the wheel, so I’m not optimistic.

So I have a few questions:

  1. Can the rod going into the power steering drive cause a tooth to break/bend without the rod showing any damage when the wheel is hit dead-on and bent in at the top?
  2. Is my initial complaint of the tightness of the steering wheel consistent with the tooth breaking off? I.e. could it have been bent from the accident, loosen, and eventually break off over the course of about 3 months’ time?
  3. Can anyone corroborate through data whether damage inside the power steering drive is always accompanied by damage to the rod going into it from the wheel? I.e. Does a lack of damage to the rod “prove” that the broken tooth in the power steering drive is not from the accident?
  4. Is the rod going from the wheel into the power steering drive straight? I.e. does it go directly from the wheel into the drive or is it hinged or curved or are there other parts in between?
  5. If the broken tooth in the power steering drive is not related to the accident, then what explains the tight steering wheel issue I complained about when I first got the car back in September?

My total bill, for the shaft, power steering drive (aka steering rack), and the loaner rental was over $2600. I am exploring my options. I feel strongly, simply by the coincidental factor and the admitted rarity of this type of “wear” that this damage is from the accident. But I wouldn’t want to make the insurance company pay if it is likely to be normal wear, as they claim. So I’d appreciate anyone’s insights on this matter.

Full disclosure side note: around the 17th of September, a bearing went in the alternator. I had explored the possibility that it could have been related to the accident simply because it was located directly behind the front right wheel (I never saw the damage personally - my wife was alone in the car when the accident occurred and it went directly to the dealership where we had the repairs conducted), but they convinced me that it couldn’t possibly be related to the accident, so I was satisfied and paid as a matter of course. This case, however, definitely to me seems related to the accident.

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I'm going to preface my answer by stating: Pay for the steering and chalk it up to experience. I'm not a lawyer, but can tell you this is a "no win scenario".

  1. Can the rod going into the power steering drive cause a tooth to break/bend without the rod showing any damage when the wheel is hit dead-on and bent in at the top?

In my humble opinion, yes it can. First of all, how do you know it was bent in at the top? It could just as easily have been bent in at the side, then the wheel turned to sit at the top of the spin. If the wheel was hit dead on the side with a quick enough strike, this could have caused the gear where the rack and pinion meet to get a stress fracture without causing damage to the tie rod ends or bar which joins them.

  1. Is my initial complaint of the tightness of the steering wheel consistent with the tooth breaking off? I.e. could it have been bent from the accident, loosen, and eventually break off over the course of about 3 months’ time?

Absolutely. If the tooth was damaged as I've stated above, it may have just been cracked or slightly displaced. This would have caused a binding sensation just as you described.

  1. Can anyone corroborate through data whether damage inside the power steering drive is always accompanied by damage to the rod going into it from the wheel? I.e. Does a lack of damage to the rod “prove” that the broken tooth in the power steering drive is not from the accident?

I don't know. Who knows if anyone has done this kind of testing, so I doubt there'd be any corroborating evidence to prove anything. We have to go on what is logical and supposition about how it might have happened. (This is the reason you are going to end up paying for it.) I can see where there may not be any damage to the rod and still provide enough shock to the rack and pinion to cause the damage. The problem is, I'm some unknown person out on the internet writing a sad sob story to someone who's going to be out $2600. There's just no way to prove anything one way or the other. When it's your word against the insurance company, who do you think is going to win? Exactly.

  1. Is the rod going from the wheel into the power steering drive straight? I.e. does it go directly from the wheel into the drive or is it hinged or curved or are there other parts in between?

Here's two images of what makes up the tie rods in your RAV4. The first is the outer (the bent one) and the second is the inner tie rod (the straight one):

enter image description here enter image description here

The skinny end without the knuckle treads on the inner threads into the end without the joint on it of the outer. The knuckle on the inner threads into the end of your rack and pinion unit. The outer tie rod connects to the steering arm on your steering knuckle (near tire).

  1. If the broken tooth in the power steering drive is not related to the accident, then what explains the tight steering wheel issue I complained about when I first got the car back in September?

As explained above, your assessment of the rack and pinion having a tooth displaced seems accurate to me. It seems the logical thing to have happened. All it does is takes enough stress in the right direction at the right time to cause what you're talking about (see also: What is a stress riser?). Is it common? By all means no, but it does seem logical. All it does is takes the right amount of stress at the correct angle and one of the teeth could have been dislodged. Even if it was to the point of just a starting crack, which grew larger over time, then had the tooth come out, it seems from your description what the issue was. Again, proving it is a whole different thing.

One last thing to look out for which may go bad if it wasn't already replaced by the shop is the wheel bearing. In situations like this where the wheel takes a hit, the wheel bearing absorbs a lot of the shock, which may cause a flat spot in the bearing (either race or one of the bearings itself). This may not be evident at first, but will wear out very quickly (over a couple of thousand miles). If you feel what may be a slight grinding on the side of the vehicle where the damage occurred, this may be the issue. Just be aware of it so it doesn't leave you stranded or so you don't end up causing other damage in the process.

  • Excellent answer. Thanks. I appreciate the advice too. – hepcat72 Dec 30 '17 at 16:07
  • One follow up: since they replaced the wheel in October, does that mean the bearings you warned me about at the end we’re replaced too or is that in a separate part? – hepcat72 Dec 30 '17 at 16:09
  • Also, generally, my insurance company is very good. I’ve been quite happy with them and they spent an extended amount of time on this case to address my concerns. They have a logical argument, but it doesn’t explain the “binding” complaint. I’m hoping that if I can demonstrate logically that what I believe happened is more likely than what their adjuster posited, that they might agree to cover it. I shared this post, before your answer was submitted with the service folks so that I can talk with them to get them on the same page (as it seems there might be a communication issue). – hepcat72 Dec 30 '17 at 16:13
  • @hepcat72 - As far as the wheel bearing, you'd have to ask them if it was part of the repair. It would not have been replaced just due to the wheel alone being replaced. These are two separate items which don't usually have issues together. All I was suggesting is, don't be surprised if it starts having an issue within a few months. Once they get tweaked, they start degrading. – Pᴀᴜʟsᴛᴇʀ2 Dec 30 '17 at 17:18

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