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Releasing a Stuck Shifter

How to Release a Shifter that is Stuck in Park

► Fast – One Minute Procedures for Releasing a Stuck Shifter.
► The Different Causes for a Shifter Becoming Stuck in Park.
► Repair Information and Cost for a Shifter Locking in Park.

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Since the early 1990s, vehicles with automatic transmissions are equipped with a key-shift interlock safety feature that locks the shifter in the Park position each time the shifter is placed there.  In order to move the shifter out of Park, the key must be in the ignition switch and the switch must be in the “ON” or “RUN” position.

In addition to the key-shift interlock safety feature, many vehicles prior to 2010 and all vehicles 2010 and newer are also equipped with a brake-shift interlock safety feature, which, in addition to the ignition switch being in the ON or RUN position, the brake pedal must be depressed and the button on the shifter must be pushed in simultaneously before the shifter can be moved out of “P” Park.

The main components that control the locking and unlocking of the shifter are the vehicle ignition switch, the brake light/stoplight switch and the shift interlock solenoid.  When one of these components fails, you may not be able to move the shifter out of Park.  Additionally, if your vehicle’s battery is dead, the shifter will be stuck in Park.

IMPORTANT SAFETY WARNING for Owners of Pre-2010 YEAR VEHICLES:  If you own a 2009 or older vehicle, do NOT ASSUME it is equipped with brake-shift interlock – some vehicle owners have done so with tragic consequences.  By law, all 2010 and newer vehicles are equipped with brake-shift interlock.

Follow these 6 steps to release a stuck shifter

1) Set the emergency brake.

2) Insert key into the ignition and turn the ignition switch to the “ON” or “RUN” position.  It is not necessary to start the engine. 

3) Locate the shift lock override slot located on the shifter console near the shifter lever.  Normally, the slot is plugged with a small plastic cap.  Remove the cap. 

4) Insert a small screwdriver, nail file, key or similarly shaped object into the override slot, push down and hold. 

5) While continuing to hold down the shift override mechanism, depress the brake pedal.

6) Now, grasp the shifter, push in the release button located on the shifter as you normally do and then move the shifter to the desired gear.  If you’ve completed these steps with the engine off, move the shifter to the Neutral position to start the engine.

Different Causes for a Shifter Being Stuck in Park+Repair and Cost Information

If the brake lights are not working – you’ve found the problem.  Either the brake light fuse is blown or the brake light switch is faulty.  These are the most common reasons for a shifter being stuck in Park.

Note: The connection between a faulty brake light switch and the shifter being stuck in Park is that a properly functioning brake light switch sends a signal to the shift interlock solenoid when the brake pedal is depressed, which causes the interlock solenoid to release the shifter.  A faulty brake light switch does not send this signal.

Brake Light Switch Replacement Cost…
Repair Shop Cost: $75 to $100
Do-it-Yourself Cost: $7.00 to $35 (Cost of switch)

2) Faulty Shift Interlock Solenoid
If you’ve verified the brake lights are working correctly then the problem is most likely a faulty shift interlock solenoid.  However, before replacing the interlock solenoid, use a digital multi-meter to rule out the problem being an open circuit in the wiring.  In other words, if the electrical signal that causes the solenoid to lock and unlock the shifter is not reaching the solenoid because of an open circuit in the wiring — replacing the solenoid will not help.

The shift interlock solenoid is located underneath the shifter console right alongside the shifter lever.  To access the shift interlock solenoid, you must remove the center console.

READ THIS Before Replacing the Shifter Interlock Solenoid: In some instances the shift interlock solenoid can malfunction when a beverage or other sticky liquid is spilled and leaks down through the shifter console and onto the solenoid or locking mechanism.

In these instances, cleaning the solenoid and locking mechanism with Q-tips and alcohol may resolve the problem.

Shift Interlock Solenoid Replacement Cost…
Repair Shop Cost: $140 to $200+
Do-it-Yourself Cost: $35 to $75 (Cost of solenoid)

3) Open Circuit
An open circuit in the shift interlock electrical system can cause the shifter to become stuck in Park if the open circuit interrupts communications between the brake light switch or the ignition switch and the interlock solenoid.

Check for power at the shift interlock solenoid.  With the ignition switch in the “ON” or “RUN” position and the brake pedal depressed, use an digital multi-meter to check for power at the solenoid.  If power is present, the shifter interlock solenoid is bad.

Cost to Locate and Repair Open Electrical Circuit...
Repair Shop Cost: $80 to $100+ per hour
Do-it-Yourself Cost: $0 (Require testing using a multi-meter)

4) Malfunctioning Ignition Switch

A less common cause for a shifter being stuck in park is a badly worn or faulty ignition switch.  What happens here is that the ignition switch, (even after being turned to the “ON” position), does not send a signal to the shift interlock solenoid indicating that the ignition is ON.  The shift interlock mechanism will remain in the locked position until the interlock solenoid receives a signal from the ignition switch indicating that it is in the “ON” position.

Ignition Switch Replacement cost…
Repair Shop Cost: $150 to $200+
Do-it-Yourself Cost: $25 to $75 (Cost of ignition switch)

5) Transmission Parking Pawl

The Transmission Parking Pawl is the least likely cause for a shifter being stuck in Park.  But, it does happen.  The two main factors that point to the parking pawl as the possible culprit are;

1) the shifter lock bypass procedure described above does not release the shifter
2) you are parked on an incline and you did not set the emergency brake before shifting into Park.

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