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8 Reasons Your Automatic Car Won’t Shift Out of Park

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As a car owner, nothing’s more frustrating than being late for work only to discover that your car wont shift out of park!

There are many reasons why your car can get stuck in park. Some are minor inconveniences, like increased pressure on the pawl. But something like a broken transmission shaft cable is a much more severe issue.

In this article, we’ll run you through 8 common reasons your car wont shift out of park, how to fix them, and how much to expect on the bill

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Let’s dive right in.

8 Reasons Your Automatic Car Won’t Shift Out of Park

Here are the seven most likely reasons your automatic car won’t shift out of park:

Note: A car stuck in park is less common in manual transmission vehicles, as the emergency brake is controlled via a cable, not the transmission system. These reasons and solutions are not viable with manual transmission vehicles.

1. Locked Shifter

It’s very common for a column shifter (gear shift or gear selector) to get locked in park. 

So common that auto engineers have designed a manual release switch specifically for it. 90% of the time, when your car is stuck in park, the shifter lock override will get you back on the road.

Note: Releasing the column shifter by using the shift lock release override only bypasses the problem — but doesn’t fix it. If your car frequently gets stuck in park, you’ll need to contact a mechanic to resolve the issue.  

How to fix a locked shifter:

Follow these simple steps to free a locked shifter:

  • Step 1: Engage the emergency brake.
  • Step 2: Insert the key into the ignition and turn the ignition switch to the “ON” or “RUN” position — no need to start the engine or use the clutch pedal.
  • Step 3: Locate the shift lock override slot on the shifter console next to the shift lever. Normally, the slot is hidden underneath a small plastic cap — remove this cap. 
  • Step 4: Insert a screwdriver, nail file, car key, or similarly shaped object into the shift lock release (override) slot, push down, and hold. 
  • Step 5: While holding down the shift override mechanism, press the brake pedal.
  • Step 6: Now, hold the shifter, push the thumb button located on the shifter as normal, and move the shifter out of park.

2. Broken Shifter Mechanism

Sometimes, your shifter itself could be broken, causing it to get stuck.

You’ll know your automatic shifter is faulty when it has a lot of play or doesn’t seem connected to anything in the shifter assembly. Getting a mechanic to remove the shifter boot and inspect it for any faults is best to prevent this issue.

How to fix a broken shifter mechanism:

Fixing a broken shifter mechanism will likely require replacing the internal part of your shifting system. It’s best to contact a qualified mechanic to inspect your shifter mechanism. 

3. Faulty Brake Light Switch

The brake needs to be engaged for an automatic transmission to shift out of park. Having a faulty brake light switch is a one-way ticket to a stuck shifter disaster. 

Another likely culprit is a blown brake light switch fuse. 

Fortunately, this is easy to self-diagnose:
Have someone stand behind your vehicle when you press the brake. If the brake lights don’t come on, you have a faulty brake light switch.

How to fix a faulty brake light switch:

If you’re lucky, it’s just a blown fuse that needs replacing. Open your fuse box and inspect your vehicle’s car owner manual to locate the brake light switch fuse. If it’s blown, replace it in the fuse box. If the problem isn’t a blown fuse, you must replace the switch altogether.

4. Faulty Shifter Interlock Solenoid or Wiring

A shift interlock feature is a standard safety feature in every modern car with an automatic transmission. It ensures that you engage the brake before shifting out of park — preventing the car from rolling or jumping forward. 

The shift interlock solenoid works hand in hand with the brake switch to ensure this safety feature is always functioning correctly. If the shift interlock solenoid is in working order, then the wiring may be damaged or disconnected. 

How to fix a faulty shift interlock solenoid:

Unfortunately, a shift lock solenoid can rarely be repaired and often need replacing. To do so, a qualified mechanic would:

Alternatively, an auto-electrician will use your vehicle’s wiring diagram to inspect the shift interlock solenoid wiring for any visible damage or open circuits.

5.  Worn Out Ignition Key Tumbler

Your ignition switch does two things — it starts your car and locks the steering wheel inside the steering column when the key is removed. 

But in automatic transmission vehicles, the shift interlock feature is part of the ignition system. This means that if the ignition key tumbler is faulty, it won’t indicate to the shift interlock solenoid that the car is running — keeping the gear shift stuck in the park position. 

How to fix a worn ignition key tumbler:

If your ignition key tumbler is worn, there’s very little you can do to repair it. Having a locksmith or mechanic have a new ignition key tumbler cut and wired for your car is your best bet for resolving the issue.

6. Broken Transmission Shift Cable

Your automatic transmission gear shifter is connected to the transmission via one cable (a transmission shift cable) through the shifter assembly. If the shift cable is broken, it hinders the gear selector. 

This cable typically fails when it becomes over-stretched or if the cable keeper has broken. 

How to fix a broken transmission shift cable:

If your transmission shift cable is only loose, not broken, it can be tightened by an experienced mechanic. Unfortunately, if the cable has snapped or warped, it must be completely replaced.

7. Increased Pawl Pressure on an Incline

Engaging the parking brake on a steep incline can cause the parking pawl to experience more pressure than usual. In this situation, it jams itself into the parking gear. This excessive weight and pressure can make changing gear out of park more challenging.

How to fix a stuck gear shifter from pawl pressure:

In this case, there’s only one thing you need to do — reduce the pressure of the parking pawl on the parking brake. Ask a friend or bystander to help you rock the vehicle slightly to take the pressure off the pawl, where you can quickly release the shifter.

Note: while this seems simple, reflexes are crucial. Quickly shifting out of the park position when the pawl pressure is removed will cause the car will jump into drive or reverse. 

It’s best to be sitting in the car while someone else rocks it so that you can keep your foot ready over the brake pedal to prevent the vehicle from moving.

8. Low Transmission Fluid

When your automatic vehicle has low transmission fluid, changing gear from park to drive may be difficult — or, in extreme cases, it can seize entirely. This will likely cause your shifter to get stuck in park.

How to fix a stuck gear shifter from low transmission fluid:

Top up your automatic transmission fluid.

Now that we’ve covered eight common causes and their repairs, let’s go through how much it’ll cost to get your repairs done.

How Much Does It Cost to Repair a Car Stuck in Park?

Here are some rough estimates of how much you can expect your auto repair or replacements to cost, including labor:

Final thoughts

Having a car that won’t shift out of the park is a sticky situation, as it could cause numerous faults. More often than not, you can resolve the issue by using the shift lock override. 

However, some problems require extensive diagnostics tests and will likely need assistance from a qualified mechanic.

So who do you call when a stuck shift lever leaves you stranded?
Contact a reliable auto mechanic like AutoNation Mobile Service!

AutoNation Mobile Service is a convenient mobile vehicle auto repair and maintenance solution with expert mechanics. We‘ll give you competitive upfront pricing plus a 12-month warranty on all repairs!