I was driving my car the other day, and pulled into a parking spot, expecting to run an errand and be on the road again in minutes. Three hours and one tow truck later, my best laid plans for a productive afternoon ground to a halt.
For most of us, driving is an automatic process. Unlock the doors. Start the engine. Put the shifter in reverse. Back out of the parking spot. Drive away. We repeat those actions again and again until we pull into the garage for the evening.
But what I experienced isn’t all that uncommon. Sometimes you’ll find the car shifter stuck in park, and no matter how much you turn your wheel or play with the shifter, it simply won’t budge.
What do you do if the car shifter is stuck in park?
Don’t force the shifter into action
When your gear shifter is stuck, the first rule of thumb is not to force it into action. To do so may cause further damage to your transmission.
There are a few different factors that could be in play. Some are more serious than others, so it’s important to evaluate the potential problems carefully. Start by asking yourself a couple of questions.
Is my car parked on an incline?
When you park on an incline, your car shifts as you put it into park and walk away. Sometimes, this causes excessive pressure on the parking pawl – a device that fits the automatic transmission in order for it to lock up the transmission. If this gets stuck, it may prevent the piece from retracting, sticking into gear. Pushing the car just a bit can sometimes relieve this action and allow you to continue to move on with your day. You can avoid this problem by applying the parking brake before letting your foot off the brake whenever you’re parked on an incline.
Do my brake lights work?
The brake switch and the shift interlock mechanism are interconnected. If you are stuck in park, have someone stand behind your vehicle and check your brake lights. Do they light up? If not, your brake switch may have come unplugged, disconnecting the sensor and making your parking connections inoperable.
Does your car have a manual shift interlock release?
Depending on the car you drive, some have what is known as a manual shift interlock release. Check around your automatic shifter for a plug, a button, or a small key slot. You can usually remove the cover by inserting a key or other small object into the slot. Pushing the button should allow you to shift out of park – just make sure you apply the brakes first as you might start rolling away. Just be aware that this might be a temporary fix. It’s still a good idea to get your car thoroughly checked to ensure it’s in good working condition.
Car still won’t shift? Now what?
If you’ve checked the above and still have a car that won’t shift, it might be time to call in a tow truck and bring it into our shop.
There are several other issues that may be at play, that may be preventing your car shifter from moving out of park.
Damaged safety mechanism
Every vehicle has a variety of safety mechanisms to keep you safe while around your car. When you start up your car, a safety feature prevents you from taking your car out of park until you press down on the brake pedal. This is called a shift interlock solenoid. Solenoids are metal cylinders that allow you to move the gearshift with ease. Every action on your vehicle triggers the next action. When you press down on the brake pedal, it signals the solenoid it’s okay to release the gearshift and allow you to move to your desired action. If this is damaged, you’ll be unable to get out of park. Replacing it is necessary to get on the road again.
Brake light switch failure
This is different from your brake light burning out. If the switch connecting your brake lights to the braking action fails, your gear shift will stick. The culprit is nothing more than a faulty switch. Replacing it will get you on the road once again.
Faulty shifter cable
If you’re driving an automatic, the transmission is fitted with a cable that links to the shifter. A manual transmission is equipped with two cables instead of one. These cables are at risk of breaking or being damaged, depending on how you drive. Slamming into gear, or frequent speed shifting can all cause wear and tear. A stretched cable won’t do the job effectively, and will eventually get stuck.
Sometimes your vehicle is unable to read the signals coming from the sensors. These sensors are what helps your vehicle determine when to switch gears. If one goes out, it triggers what is known as limp mode. This feature is designed to protect the transmission, giving a driver a chance to bring the car in for repair before damaging the transmission further. You won’t be able to pick up speed, so highway driving is out. You should only try this without getting a tow truck if you are close to the repair shop.
It might also be caused by weather
Let’s face it, Colorado can have extreme weather conditions in days, or even hours. If the weather drops below freezing, below zero, it can play havoc with your transmission. A frozen shift lock solenoid might be the cause of a car shifter stuck in park. Warming your car up may be an easy fix.
It’s time to let a mechanic get you back on the road
It’s easy to get upset, even angry when your car doesn’t work as designed. But in most cases, attempting to jam your car back into working condition may only cause more damage.
Carefully try out some of the mentioned techniques from above. If you can’t immediately put your finger on what the cause is, call in a tow truck and have one of our mechanics look for the cause.
You’ll save money in the long run by fixing the problem the right way without doing further damage to your car.
Is your car shifter stuck in park? What can we do to help you get on the road once again?