Cars are supposed to start when they are in park or neutral gears. They will not start when the gear is in drive or another gear due to safety features within the transmission. However, a car that won’t start in either park or neutral could signal a serious problem.
The most common reason why car won’t start in neutral is because of a faulty neutral safety switch. This can also be a problem if your car won’t start in park but will start in neutral. It should start in both gears at all times and failure to start in one or the other shows the safety switch may need replacing.
Read on to learn about how the transmission works and why a bad neutral safety switch could be the source of your problem.
Understanding the Gears
For the sake of practicality, the gears of “park” and “neutral” are virtually the same thing. The main difference is the park gear has a lock so the car won’t move while you can roll a car when it’s in the neutral gear.
All modern cars have a neutral safety switch located on the inside of the transmission at the shifting linkage end. When you shift the gear on an automatic transmission car, the switch sends a message to the starter and it turns over the engine.
A faulty switch can’t send the signal to the starter that your car is in park or neutral so your car won’t start.
Manual transmission cars also have a component that prevents you from starting your vehicle while in the drive gear. These neutral safety switches are located in the clutch, so you can’t start your car unless you are pressing the clutch pedal.
Practically, both cars will have the same symptoms and solutions even though the neutral safety switches are different and located in different places.
Read: Why Your Car’s Transmission is Slipping & Fix
It’s Important to Know the Symptoms
Leaving a faulty neutral safety switch unrepaired can cause significant damage to your transmission or your engine. You can remedy the problem by understanding the symptoms. Some symptoms indicate when you need to get this often overlooked item fixed.
It Cranks Only In One Gear
It could be that your car will crank in park and not in neutral or in neutral but not in park. While this is a sign of a faulty neutral safety switch, this symptom alone could also show that the switch may be loose in the transmission, or an electrical issue prevents the neutral safety switch from powering.
This symptom almost assuredly indicates you have a neutral safety switch problem that needs to be diagnosed by a mechanic.
It Cranks in Any Gear
This is a significant safety issue and indicates you do have a failed neutral safety switch. You may also find you can crank the vehicle again while it is running. This is a dangerous situation and needs to be fixed immediately.
After all, it can cause a serious accident if this happens while you are driving.
The Car Won’t Crank in Park or Neutral
This indicates there is a power issue with the neutral safety switch. Either the switch has failed or you have some electrical issue preventing it from sending power to the starter. The starter depends on the switch to start the car so it won’t crank without a good neutral safety switch.
What You Can Do
Most cars remain in park while sitting. If the car won’t start when you crank it, manually move the gear to neutral and try to crank it from there.
You can manually move the shift by putting your foot on the brank and then moving the gear lever to neutral.
If your car won’t crank in neutral, try moving it back to the park gear. Then, try to crank it again.
There are times when simply moving the gear shifter will reconnect the electrical contact on the neutral safety switch.
A car that cranks after doing this indicates the neutral safety switch may be loose. Take it to a mechanic and have him or her look at it to see if it’s just loose or needs replacing.
If it won’t start at all, then you may look at other possible problems to see if there is something else going on besides the neutral safety switch before you take the car into the shop.
Other Possible Problems
Some other possible problems may be occurring with your car beside a failing neutral safety switch.
It Could Be a Low Battery
A low or drained battery may not give you the power you need to start the car. In this case, the car won’t start in either park or neutral.
Try jump-starting it to see if that works. If it does, then the battery is your primary issue.
Read: How Long Can a Car Battery Sit Unused?
It Could Be Low Transmission Fluid
You could also be low on transmission fluid. Low fluid levels will lead to your car only starting in neutral and will also give you trouble when you turn off your vehicle. You should check all your fluids regularly and fill them to appropriate levels.
It Could Be a Failing Transmission
A failing transmission can also give you issues when you try to start your car. A bad transmission can lead to your vehicle only starting in one gear rather than both park and neutral.
Bad gears inside the transmission could be throwing your vehicle out of whack when you put it in the park. It may need to be rebuilt or you may need a new transmission.
Read: Why is My Car With Automatic Transmission Jerking?
Look at the Starter
Some of your problems could be a bad starter or electrical but those typically have other symptoms. A bad starter will showcase a clicking noise when you turn the key and electrical issues will mean other things, like lights and the radio, won’t work either.
It is rare for a starter or electrical issues to cause the car to start in one gear and not the other.
Pricing Out the Problems
Fixing this kind of problem with starting in one gear only generally doesn’t cost too much even if it is a faulty neutral safety switch. Adding fluid will cost between $30 and $50 to buy the product and you can add it yourself.
Keeping transmission fluid in your car will extend the life of your transmission. Since buying fluid is cheaper than a new transmission, it makes sense to keep up with this important task.
Replacing a neutral safety switch will cost between $95 and $150 at most shops. The part will cost approximately $50 and the labor can cost anywhere from $45 to $100.
Why does it mean when my car won’t start but doesn’t make a clicking sound?
A car that won’t start but doesn’t have a clicking sound when you turn the key may signal a dead battery. It could also be the cables aren’t connected well to the battery or the battery terminals may be corroded. Look at the battery to check for corrosion and wiggle the cables to see if they connect better.
Read: Does a Car Battery Drain Faster In Cold?
Why doesn’t my car turn over when I have power?
You may hear the car try to turn over when you turn the key but it may not have the power it needs to start. You can still have power in the cabin and yet your battery isn’t producing enough power to start the engine. Check your battery for terminal corrosion and perhaps take your battery in to recharge at an automotive retail shop to see how much life is left.
How do you tell if you have a battery problem versus a starter problem?
A starter problem will have the symptom of you hearing only a click when you try to crank the car. That may not be the only problem but it’s a good indication of a starter problem. A starter issue may also make a grinding sound when you try to start the car. A battery issue will either result in nothing happening when you turn the key or the car attempts to start but doesn’t.
What will cause the starter to turn but the engine not crank?
This indicates there is a low battery voltage or a bad starter motor solenoid. It could also be the plunger or pinion gear in the starter.
What does it mean if your headlights come on but your car won’t start?
It could be a damaged or broken ignition switch. Headlights coming on means your battery is charged so it has to either be the starter or the ignition that is causing the problem.
Why is my key stuck in the ignition when my car won’t start?
A key that will not come out of the ignition of a stalled car is a battery issue. Typically, it means the battery cables came loose from the battery. Move and tighten the cables until lights and other electrical items comes on. Then, you can remove your key.