If your car can’t get out of Park, it’s not really a car at all. You could be doing everything right, yet your car refuses to go into Drive. The good news is that I put together this guide to help you get back on the road.
There are only a few parts that could be causing this issue: the transmission, parking pawl, ignition switch, brake switch, or a step in the shifter interlock sequence. Each of these issues is simple enough to diagnose, but replacing something like your transmission can be really expensive and difficult. Read the rest of the guide for an in-depth dive into these ideas.
I’ll cover a little bit about how Park works in an automatic car before talking about some general tips to avoid this issue in the future. From there, I’ll cover some common causes, troubleshooting, and fixes.
How Does an Automatic Car Park?
With a manual car, gearing is pretty easy to understand. The car waits obediently for you to tell it what to do, then it does it. If you see the shift knob in the “3” slot, then you’re in 3rd gear. You’re in Park when you throw the car in neutral and apply the parking brake.
With an automatic car, it all happens under pieces of plastic and metal that you can’t see through.
Basically, the car is doing all the work for you. Instead of you physically shifting gears, it uses hydraulic pressure to shift for you.
When you put it in Park, the “parking pawl” takes over.
Understanding the Parking Pawl
Let’s talk about the parking pawl for a second. This is a little piece that fits into the gearing of your transmission. It’s held against the parking gear.
The parking gear disconnects the transmission from the engine. Once engaged, no amount of engine rotation will result in your car’s wheels turning. Through a combination of springs, pin, and lack of transmission fluid pressure, this pawl will be pressed firmly against the parking gear, engaging it.
It doesn’t get released until the vehicle is started, the brake pedal is pushed, solenoids fire off, sensors activate, and the shifter is disengaged (typically through pushing a button on the knob).
General Tips to Avoid Getting Stuck in Park
Before getting into some causes and fixes, let me highlight some general tips. These will help you avoid getting stuck in Park in the future, and they might be why you’re currently stuck.
DON’T Try to Force the Shifter Loose
I know you’re probably frustrated, but this isn’t a good time to try to brute force your way through the issue. If you try to force the shifter loose, you could break other parts. Your car’s transmission is an expensive piece of equipment to repair.
The best course of action is to work through the troubleshooting steps that I highlight later in this article.
Remember to Press the Brake
As silly as it might seem, you might be forgetting to press the brake before getting out of Park. The parking pawl won’t disengage if this is the case, which means you’ll be “stuck” in Park until you hit the brake pedal.
If you’re lightly pressing the brake, give it a harder press and try getting out of Park again.
Use Your Parking Brake When You’re on a Hill
It’s always a good idea to apply your parking brake when you’re parked on a hill. To be honest, I use it every time I park since I was raised driving a manual, so it’s just a habit now.
One reason to do this is that it’s safer. If your transmission or parking pawl fails while you’re parked overnight, your car will roll away and hit whatever’s in its path. With a parking brake, you have a backup that can prevent this.
Another reason is that it helps your parking pawl in general. It takes some of the force associated with angled parking.
Be sure to disengage the parking brake before starting your car and driving away. Modern cars typically give you a warning on your dashboard instrument cluster if your e-brake is engaged, but the smell and weird feel while driving should give it away.
5 Reasons Why Your Car Is Stuck in Park
Now, I’d like to discuss a few of the reasons why your car is stuck in Park, to begin with. These 5 tips should cover just about every reason why your car won’t get out of Park.
1. High Parking Pawl Pressure
I keep talking about the parking pawl, and it comes up yet again. This is a critically important part of the parking process in an automatic car. Without a parking pawl, your car will just be in neutral and roll away whenever you park it.
If you’re on a hill, there’s a lot of added pressure to the parking pawl. This is a pretty simple mechanism, which makes it susceptible to outside forces.
If you’re parked on a San Francisco road without a parking brake, the parking pawl might have more pressure than it can handle. It will be essentially wedged into the parking gear, making it really hard to move the transmission into Reverse or Drive.
2. Shifter Interlock is Malfunctioning
The “shifter interlock” stops your car from going into Drive or Reverse when you don’t want it to. It’s a safety feature that’s built into newer cars.
I mentioned earlier that you need to start the car, press the brake, activate all the sensors and solenoids, then move the shifter before the car will shift. All of these steps are part of the shifter interlock.
It’s looking at a list and making sure all the actions are checked off, telling the shifter that it’s finally safe to go into Drive.
If any of the equipment used in these steps malfunctions, then the interlock will not allow your car to move out of Park.
This is a pretty general explanation of why your car is stuck in Park. You’ll have to find which part of the sequence is not communicating properly to correctly diagnose the issue.
3. Ignition Switch Is Faulty
It’s not as common, but your issue could be due to the ignition switch. Even though your car is turned “ON”, the switch doesn’t tell the rest of your car.
More specifically, it doesn’t tell the shifter interlock. As such, the interlock won’t release the shifter and you’ll be stuck in Park.
4. Brake Switch Failed
Another part of the shifter interlock sequence is the brake switch. This is connected to your brake pedal and it does the mechanical pressing of the pedal into some electrical signals.
It tells the shifter that the brake is depressed, and it also tells the brake lights to turn on since you’re braking. This will come in handy when it comes time to troubleshoot and fix the problem.
5. Transmission Failed
It could just be that your transmission failed. If this happened, your car being stuck in Park wouldn’t be the only clue. You would have heard a nasty noise ahead of time and probably felt grinding and delays between shifts leading up to the failure.
Still, if your transmission isn’t working anymore, you won’t be able to do any shifting.
How to Fix a Car That’s Stuck in Park
Time to get your car out of Park. These fixes should get you back on the road in no time.
Override the Shift Interlock Solenoid
There’s a little override built into most modern cars. It feels like you’re hotwiring a car, but it’s a backup feature that was put there on purpose (in case your car gets stuck in Park).
It’s going to vary a little from car to car. You’ll have to check your owner’s manual for the exact sequence, but here’s how it works for a lot of vehicles:
Step 1: Turn Off the Car
You’ll need to start with a car that isn’t running.
Step 2: Set the Parking Brake
Pull up the parking brake as far as it goes before doing anything else.
Step 3: Go to the “RUN” or “ON” Position
Now put your key in the ignition and go to the “RUN” position. If you have a push-to-start, don’t press the brake pedal before pushing the button. Read more about your car’s ignition stages in this guide.
Step 4: Find and Remove the Override Slot
If you look near your car’s shifter, you should see a capped piece of plastic. Typically it’s to the left and a little above the shifter.
The plastic you see in the hole is just a plug that can be taken out. Use a flathead screwdriver and pop out this piece.
Step 5: Push Down into the Override Slot
Use the same screwdriver and push it down into the override slot. Continue pushing for the rest of these steps.
Step 6: Press the Brake
Press the brake pedal with your foot just as you normally would when you go to change the shifter.
Step 7: Move the Shifter to Neutral
With the brake pressed and screwdriver pressed into the override slot still, grab the shifter with your other hand and move it into Neutral. It’s okay that the car is still turned off. This won’t work if you put it in Drive or Reverse.
Step 8: Start the Engine
Now you’ll be able to finally start your engine. You can remove the screwdriver at this point. Since your car is in “Neutral,” it will successfully start and you can drive away.
If you want to avoid doing this process every time you want to drive somewhere, you should fix your car — this is just a temporary solution.
Adjust the Weight
If the parking pawl is jammed, then you might just need to adjust the weight of your car. This is easier said than done.
You’ll need to get a friend to go outside of your car and push on it, rocking your car. While they do this, try to get your car out of Park from time to time by pressing the brake pedal and trying to move the shifter.
The best way to do this is to have your friend heave your car in the opposite direction that the hill is going. If you’re parked downhill, then they should push the front of your car and rock the car backward. Now, you can engage your handbrake, press the brake, and try getting out of “Park.”
Remember, the handbrake will take some pressure off the pawl, which will help you.
Do this a few times and see if you can get your car out of Park finally.
If it works, then drive to a flat parking lot. Put your car in Park and see if you can get it out of Park without any issues. If you can’t, then there’s something else wrong. If you can, then the only thing stopping you was the fact that you parked on an incline without a parking brake.
Look at the Brake Lights
The brake lights will tell you if the issue stems from your brake switch. This switch converts mechanical pressure into an electrical signal.
One use of the signal is to give a green light in the shifter interlock sequence, but another use is to light up your brake lights.
Have a buddy go behind your car as you apply the brakes and take your foot off the pedal repeatedly. If they didn’t notice your brake lights going on and off, try turning on your hazards. If the hazards work, then your brake switch could be faulty.
This is actually good news since a new switch will cost less than $30 to replace on your own. If you got this far, then you should replace your brake switch and see if that fixes your problem.
Wiggle the Steering Wheel
There is also a safety feature built into your wheel which could be impeding you. I noticed this on the older cars that I’ve owned, so I know it works.
If your steering wheel is locked, you might not be able to start the car at all. In some cases, you can start the car but then your shifter will be stuck.
All you have to do is wiggle your steering wheel left and right a little before trying it again. This is the case even if you don’t have an aftermarket steering wheel lock rod that you put in.
Warm Up Your Car
If you live in a colder part of America, then there could be some freezing going on under your hood. Give your car a few minutes to warm up and see if that’s enough to thaw things.
The best thing you can do for your car is to park in a garage. It will keep your car alive for longer and will help prevent issues like this in the morning.
Replace the Ignition Switch
The ignition switch is the other piece of the puzzle that you should look at. This is responsible for telling the rest of the car that the vehicle is actually running.
Another sign that your ignition switch is faulty is if your key gets jammed in the slot and won’t come out.
A new ignition switch will be less than $50 and the process doesn’t take long at all. There’s a great video walkthrough here from Scotty Kilmer (one of the best in the business).
Take it to a Mechanic
If all else fails, it’s time to take your car to a mechanic. They’ll be able to go through all the troubleshooting, identify the problem, and fix it for you.
If you’ve already done some troubleshooting, be sure to let them know so they can save some time when they proceed with repairs.
It will be more expensive than if you tried fixing it on your own, but sometimes it’s worth it. In the case of a dying transmission, this is probably your only option. Diagnosing and rebuilding a transmission is a huge project, and most people aren’t comfortable tackling it on their own.
However, be prepared for a huge quote to fix the transmission. It could easily run you a few thousand dollars. You’ll have to ask yourself if your car is worth fixing at this point.
Hopefully, your car is finally in Drive at this point. I covered some common causes and fixes to get your car out of Park and get you back on the road. For more tips and tricks, check out the rest of my website. I also have a list of car products that I use almost every day, so you should give it a look.