You start the engine and shift the car into drive, but the car won’t shift. It seems to be stuck in park, and no matter what you do, it will not move.
When your car decides it wants to stay parked, your first reaction might be to gather up your muscles and force the shifter into gear, but this would be a mistake. This tactic will not work and could even further damage your car.
Common reasons why this could happen:
There are a number of reasons why a car will not move from park to drive. They can range from the shifter being locked, to a broken shifter cable. Here are a few of the most common conditions that will keep your car stuck in park.
- Locked shifter: A shifter will sometimes get locked in park. This is one problem that you can usually fix yourself because automakers have put in a quick and easy way to manually release a shifter:
Put the emergency (hand) brake on. Find the shifter lock override slot, which is usually located on the shifter console close to the shift lever. The slot will be plugged with a plastic cap. Remove the cap and push down on the button with a nail file or other pointed object. As you are pushing the button down, step on the brake pedal, move the shifter into neutral, and start the car.
Note that releasing the shifter will only bypass the problem, if the problem was a locked shifter. There will be other issues to take care of, but this will at least get the car to move, which can be important if your car is not currently located in a place where it can stay until a mechanic comes out to inspect the underlying issue.
- Failed brake light switch: In order to shift a vehicle out of park, you must step on the brake. If you have a faulty brake light switch, the shifter is not going to move. It is also possible that the fuse that controls the brake light switch and shift lock has blown.
This is pretty easy to diagnose: have someone stand behind your car while you step on the brake. If the brake lights do not illuminate, a bad switch is the likely culprit.
- Faulty shift interlock solenoid or wiring: The shift interlock solenoid is a safety feature that has been added to all modern automatic-transmission cars. It prevents the driver from shifting out of park without a foot on the brake, working in conjunction with the brake light switch. If the solenoid or its wiring is damaged, you will not be able to shift out of park.
- Broken transmission shift cable: A cable connects the shifter handle to the transmission, and if that is broken, the shifter will be inoperable.
The cable will usually fail due to stretching, or if the keeper at the end of the cable has failed. Shifting too quickly or slamming the car into gear can exacerbate the stretching problem.
As the cable stretches, you may find it hard to put the car in park, or even to turn the ignition off and remove your key. When the cable finally snaps, the shifter will move to any position, but the transmission will stay in park or the last shift position.
One way to test for this is to release the parking brake and push the car forward a few feet (note: only perform this test on flat ground). If the car moves, the issue is most likely with the shift cable, as the car is clearly not in park.
- Ignition key tumbler is worn out: The ignition switch not only starts your car, but it also locks the steering wheel when the key is taken out. In cars with automatic transmissions, a shift interlock solenoid is also part of the ignition system, and it locks the transmission so it cannot be shifted out of park (as described above).
A worn-out ignition will prevent you from turning the switch, which means your car is not going to shift properly, or at all.
- Broken shifter mechanism: It is also possible that the shifter itself is broken. If there is a lot of play in the shifter, or it doesn’t seem connected to anything, there is a good chance the shifter is broken.
A mechanic will remove the boot to examine the actual shifter mechanism. If they find any broken or loose parts, they are likely the cause of the problem. In some cases, it’s possible to replace the broken parts, but it’s often necessary to replace the entire shifter.