Why Won’t My Car Shift Out Of Park?

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One issue that can hit at the worst of times is that the car won’t shift out of park. When it occurs, you almost always have something important to do and end up catching a ride, only to puzzle over it later. The good news is that when the car won’t shift out of park it’s actually not that hard to diagnose if you know a few automotive basics.

We’ll take the problem and break it down for you so that the next it happens to you, you’ll be fully prepared to address it and put the issue behind you.

Table Of Contents

Understanding Why Your Car Won’t Shift Out Of Park

Just like with any problem that you are facing, the best way to find a solution is to break it up into components. If your car refuses to shift out of park, you will want to consider the 4 main causes for this issue. They are as follows:

  • It could be how a Shift Interlock Mechanism works itself
  • Circuit Problems with the Brake light can cause park to lockup
  • It might be a Bad Solenoid in the Shift Interlock
  • Parking On an Incline can also cause this issue

99% of the time when your car won’t shift out of park it is going to be due to one of these 4 reasons .

Now that you have 4 potential solutions, one of which is highly likely to be the issue, let’s go into the ‘why’ of it and what you need to check to confirm which problem is the key to getting that car out of park!

1. Shift Interlock Mechanism Itself

The Shift Interlock Mechanism is designed to ensure your safety. With it in place, you have to press the brake pedal in order to take the vehicle out of park. This is something that you’ve probably gotten so used to over the years that you don’t really think about it – until it stops working.

The Shift Interlock also ensures that you can’t move the key into a lock position unless you are in park. This is important as well, as you certainly don’t want your car to end up drifting off and gaining speed until it hits something right after you exit from a long day at work. It may sound silly, but if your car isn’t switching from park, make sure you have pressed your brake pedal before shifting out of park.

Note: Never Try Forcing The Shifter To Move

If the shifter is stuck in park, NEVER try forcing it to move. If the regular effort does not move the shifter out of park, pulling with more force will almost certainly break something. The transmission is usually connected to the shift mechanism through a wire and is constructed with relatively light materials. Any excessive force can cause the cable to snap or the shifter to be damaged. Shifting gears is impossible if the shifter cord fails.

Releasing Shift Lock:

Note: The complete guide to releasing the shift lock is at the bottom of this article

In case the shift interlock refuses to work even if you’ve done everything correctly, manufactures have implemented a shit lock override. You’ll want to consult your manual, as requirements may vary, but in a lot of vehicles, there should be a cap close to the shifter which you can pry open, and push a flat-head screwdriver or a key to unlock the mechanism.

This will release the interlock but you need to keep in mind that the interlock is a safety feature that you need. Without it, all it takes is forgetting to put the car in park one time for vehicle damage or possibly worse to occur.

If there is a problem with the Shift Interlock Mechanism then you are likely going to need to test it thoroughly with a multimeter to see where the power is stopping to rule out an open circuit issue. If you bring it into a shop then the average hourly cost for tracing the circuitry is around $80 to $100 per hour.

2. Circuit Problems +Brake light

As the Shift Interlock mechanism (more on this shortly) relies on the ignition being in the ‘on’ position and the brakes being depressed, you need to check your brakes to rule out an issue with the circuitry. This is the easiest thing to check, as all you need to do is turn on the ignition and verify that the vehicle has power and after this, simply press on the brakes.

If the brake lights are not coming on, then either a fuse needs to be replaced or you’ve got a faulty Brake-light switch. This gets you stuck in park because that switch is responsible for sending the ‘okay’ signal to your Shift Interlock Mechanism that allows you to take the vehicle out of park.

If the brake light switch is faulty then that signal never arrives and you aren’t going anywhere. The good news is that this is relatively inexpensive to replace. If you are comfortable with fixing it yourself then you are looking at anywhere from $7 to $35 to fix it or you can take it into the shop and likely get it fixed for around $75.

Related: Causes of Intermittent Hard Brake Pedal

3. Bad Solenoid in the Shift Lock

If releasing the Shift Interlock Mechanism does the trick then you would want to consider that a bad Solenoid in the Shift Interlock might be the issue. This part gets a lot of wear and tear over the years and eventually, you will need to replace it. Here are some signs that the Solenoid has gone bad:

  • You can’t downshift and/or your car revs when braking.
  • The vehicle will not go out of park, with the brake pedal pressed down and the ignition turned to ‘on’ You’ve verified that this is occurring with a functional/charged battery
  • With some vehicles, you may get a warning code from the dash indicating this issue, such as P0929

One thing that you can check if this issue is occurring that can give you a definite answer is this. Get a multimeter, with the ignition in the ‘on position’, check your solenoid with your multimeter so that you can rule out an open-circuit wiring issue.

If it turns out that the Solenoid is not getting power, replacing it won’t do you any good, but if it is getting power and still not functioning then you might need to replace it.

To get to the Solenoid, you need to remove your center console and it should be located underneath your shifter console and right next to the shifter lever. While you are checking it, make sure that there isn’t any residue from spilled drinks or foods. If there is, you can clean it with alcohol and q-tips and that might just resolve the issue.

If you do need to replace the Solenoid, it’ll cost you about $35 to $74 if you are doing the work on your own or you can take it to a mechanic and you are looking at around $140 to a little over $200 in most cases.

4. Parking On An Incline

Believe it or not, parking on an incline can also cause this issue. Your transmission employs a device called a ‘Parking Pawl’ to stay the transmission and keep those wheels from rolling when you’ve put the vehicle into park.

A ‘pawl’ is just a fancy word for a pin, and the Parking Pawl functions by engaged a notched ring in the transmission, effectively ‘jamming it up’ to keep your car safe and stationary, preventing your wheels from moving in any direction.

A problem with the pawl is uncommon, but it can happen If you have the habit of putting the car into park on an incline without engaging the emergency brake first.

The reason that it locks in park is that the pin, and not the emergency brake, is supporting the weight of the car and this is locking it in the park position. If this is the issue, the only way to fix it is to push the car uphill an inch or two by (e.g using your weight to rock the car forward), and then to pull the emergency brake BEFORE putting it into park again.

We’ve listed this last as it is quite uncommon, but this is something to consider if you are on an incline and there is a chance that it was put into park before that emergency brake was engaged.

How To Override/Release a Shift Lock

Overriding/releasing the shift lock can be required if you’re stuck in an undesirable situation and can’t switch out of park. On most cars, the process should be very simple, but before you proceed it is recommended to consult your owner’s manual for instructions. It is also important to only override/release a shift lock as a temporary solution and get it fixed before it gets any worse.

When overriding, make sure to keep your foot on the brake pedal to avoid your car accidentally going forward or backward. You can override/release a shift lock with the following steps:

  • Locate the override slot on the gear shifter
  • Remove the cap, if it exists
  • Get a key/screw/paperclip or anything that can fit inside and is long enough
  • Use it to push it inside the override slot
  • Keep holding it there while you switch gears.
  • Some cars have a button to override the shift lock, in this case, all you have to do to release the shift lock is to simply press and hold the button while you switch gears.

Different Locations:

if you couldn’t find the override slot on your gearbox, check the following locations:

  • Bottom Of The Steering Wheel: Usually, if it’s located under the steering wheel it would have a small opening which you would need to do the same procedure as listed above, get a key/screw/paperclip or anything that can fit inside and is long enough and press it down while changing gears.
  • Top Of The Steering Wheel: Usually, if it’s located on top of the steering, it would have an access plug which you would need to carefully pry out. The process is the same as listed above. Once again, get a key/screw/paperclip or anything that can fit inside and is long enough and press it down while changing gears.
  • Other: If you couldn’t find the override slot in any of the locations listed, now is the time to check your owners manual, you might not have an override switch after all, and should instead check the listed reasons for a car that won’t shift out of park above.

Conclusion

If your car won’t shift out of park then these steps should resolve the issue. Thankfully, when a car won’t shift out of park it’s almost always one of these four things, so you should be up and running in no time.

It’s great information to know about and the next time this happens to you or a friend, you’ll have it fixed in a jiffy! If you have any comments or concerns, feel free to leave them below

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