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My Car Is Stuck In Park – What Should I Do?

car stuck in park
Image Courtesy of Pixabay

So you start your vehicle, prepare to drive, and realize your automatic transmission is stuck in Park. What now? While this is very alarming and can mean expensive repairs and diagnostics, depending on the vehicle, there may be something you can do about it right now.

How the Automatic Transmission Works.

Automatic transmissions use ‘park’ to prevent the drive wheels, those that receive power from the transmission, from rotating when stationary. This is accomplished by locking the transmission with a park mechanism. The park mechanism is normally called the parking pawl, and when the vehicle is placed in park, the parking pawl will move into contact with the transmission output shaft, locking between teeth on the output shaft, and preventing the transmission from moving in any meaningful way.

When the transmission is locked, the parking pawl may allow the vehicle to roll a couple of inches, but once the parking pawl engages the teeth on the output shaft, the weight of the vehicle will rest heavily on the parking pawl, preventing output shaft and wheel rotation.

Additionally, there is a shift-interlock system which typically includes a solenoid which unlocks the shift lever when signaled by the brake light switch on the brake pedal lever.

What Might be Wrong?

When the shift lever feels stuck, the first thing to consider is whether the parking brake was set before the service brake was released, or afterward. The parking brake will hold the vehicle’s weight while allowing the parking pawl and output shaft to remain idle as a backup in case the brake fails. If the parking brake fails or was not used before the vehicle was placed in park, the parking pawl and output shaft may bind under the weight of the vehicle, and be difficult to impossible to release, even though they are designed for this action.

Another component that may affect this situation, is if the shift interlock mechanism. There are a few types, but all serve the same function, to lock the vehicle in park if the brake is not pressed, or, in some models, the security system has detected unauthorized use. The interlock relies on the brake light switch, mounted to the brake pedal, to send a signal that it is safe to shift from park, requiring the brake switch to be in good operating condition as well.

There could be a wiring issue, security malfunction, or the solenoid also may have become stuck with grime from spilled drinks, humidity, and dirt, or another contaminant.

What Can I Do?

If this seems to be the case that the weight of the vehicle is preventing the parking pawl from releasing, the transmission gear selector can be pulled with a little extra vigor in an attempt to release the trapped parking pawl. If this is the case, be prepared for a loud ‘pop’ from the rear of the transmission, and the vehicle will move slightly. The brakes should be fully engaged while releasing the transmission.

Look at the brake lights while the pedal is pressed. If the brake lights are not working, check the fuses, and see if the brake light fuse has failed. If the fuse is good, a quick test of the brake light switch will allow you to understand if it has caused the shift-interlock solenoid to continue locking the shift lever. If the security system has disabled the shift lever, try the spare key. If that does not work, you can turn everything off, lock the door with the remote, and open it with the key. This may disarm the alarm on some models, but will not work on others. This depends on the security protocol (programing) that is included with the vehicle, and most will disable the engine instead of the shift lever.

If the shift-interlock or brake light switch has failed, the cover for the shifter can be removed, and most times the shift interlock solenoid can be moved manually. Also, check your owner’s manual for information on a manual release for the shifter. Many times there is a small cover near the gear selector, which can be pried up, and exposes a manual gear selector release. Note: this is only a temporary fix, and should not be relied on as the sole means of disengaging ‘park’.

If the above attempts do not solve the issue, the vehicle will need diagnostic testing in order to discover the cause, and guarantee a repair. Since the vehicle cannot be driven from ‘park’, a towing service can place the vehicle on rollers to safely move the vehicle from any position, but the service may cost a little extra. Find a Certified shop that will help you get your car unstuck.