Stuck In Park? Here's How To Get Unstuck

30 March 2015
 Categories: , Articles


Whenever you're ready to hit the open road, the last thing you want stopping you is your own car. Unfortunately, a frozen shift lever can do just that, leaving your vehicle stuck in Park until you can find a way to free it. The following offers a few helpful tips on getting your vehicle unstuck.

Shifter Interlock Woes

Nearly every vehicle equipped with an automatic transmission is also equipped with a shift interlock mechanism. This device prevents the shifter from moving out of position unintentionally, usually unless the brakes are depressed and/or the shifter knob is depressed. Shift interlock systems gained popularity throughout the 1980s as a safety precaution against "unintended acceleration" events.

A failed shift interlock will, in most cases, freeze the shift lever in the Park position. Fortunately, you can override the shift interlock through the following steps:

  • Set the parking brake prior to overriding the shift interlock. This will prevent the vehicle from moving once the interlock is defeated.
  • Look for the shift lock override slot near the shift lever. On many vehicles, the slot will be covered with a plastic or rubber piece. Other vehicles may feature a prominent key slot.
  • Insert a screwdriver or key into the slot and push down. As you're pushing down, depress the brake and move the shift lever from Park.

Most shift interlock failures are caused when the magnetic solenoid or actuator fails, leaving the shifter locked into Park unless overridden with the above steps. The brake light switch, which also sends the appropriate signals to the shift interlock to disengage when the brake pedal is depressed, can also fail. It's a good idea to have a seasoned mechanic replace these components, namely to ensure that the job is done correctly the first time around.

Parked on an Incline?

Another good way of getting stuck in Park involves parking on incline and relying on your parking pawl to hold your car instead of using the parking brake. The parking pawl isn't meant to be used as the primary means of holding your vehicle in place. Instead, it's a last-gasp measure to prevent it from rolling if the parking brake fails.

Whenever the vehicle's put in Park, it typically rolls forward or backward until the metal parking pawl slots into a notch on the transmission's output shaft. On an incline, it's possible for the vehicle's entire weight to rest on that pawl. It's why you can hear that telltale "clunk" when shifting out of Park on moderate inclines.

If your vehicle's parked on a steep incline and the gear selector won't budge, then you'll have to find a way to relieve its weight from the parking pawl before engaging into gear. That means pushing the vehicle slightly uphill until the pawl is relieved of its weight, with the parking brake set afterwards to prevent the problem from happening again.

When it comes to parking pawl problems, prevention is the best medicine. The best way of preventing this problem from happening is to set the parking brake when parked on an incline before shifting into Park.

Parking Best Practices

To prevent future parking disasters, it pays to follow these best practices for parking your vehicle:

  • Get in the habit of using your parking brake every time you park, even if you're not parked on an incline. When in Park, make sure you set your parking brake before you let your foot off of the brake.
  • Whenever you park facing downhill, turn your front wheels towards the right curb. When parked facing uphill, turn your front wheels sharply away from the curb.

Following these best practices can help you avoid spending money on transmission repairs.