Why is it hard to shift from Park to Drive?

Have you ever encountered a situation in which it becomes difficult to shift your car from Park to Drive? Problems with shifting your automatic transmission can come from a few different places,  these can start from the shift lock feature, the shift linkages, shift cable, and even from the parking pawl in the transmission itself. That being said, here are a couple of reasons your automatic transmission could be having problems shifting from Park.

Parking pawl

One of the most common reasons why an automatic transmission has difficulties shifting from Park to any other gear, is the parking pawl. This is a small component within the gearbox that locks the gears in place so that the transmission doesn’t move. If your vehicle is parked on an inclined surface or has its weight being held by the transmission, it becomes difficult to get out of Park. While this part is strong enough to hold the weight of the vehicle, doing this repeatedly could damage the parking pawl itself and even damage some of the gears in the transmission.


In order to make it easier to shift from Park to any other gear in this situation, a quick change in habit is needed. If you find yourself shifting into Park first before applying the handbrake simply reverse the order. Shifting into neutral first then applying the handbrake will ensure that the weight of the vehicle is being held by the brakes. This will take the initial load off the parking pawl and will ensure that it doesn’t take the weight of the vehicle. If the brakes on your car fail, it will still be held in place by the parking pawl but as a last resort. Either way, making sure that the weight of the vehicle is held by the brakes instead of the transmission will ensure that your gearbox will last longer.

Automatic transmission

Having a broken or obstructed shift cable or linkage is less likely to happen compared to what can happen with your parking pawl. That said, these are more severe cases as these could potentially leave your vehicle unable to move, especially for much older vehicles.

There are a few signs to look out for to see if your vehicle has a broken or damaged shift linkage or shift cable.

  • The indicator does not match the gear

If the selector cable is going bad the indicator light or cable will not match the selected gear on your gear shifter. If you need to move the gear selector again to get into the gear you want this could be a sign that the cable or linkage is on its way out and is in need of immediate replacement.

  • Your vehicle will not be able to turn off

If you find yourself unable to remove your key or turn off your vehicle while the gear selector is in Park, then this could be a sign that there is a broken part. This is a safety feature in some vehicles to ensure that the transmission is locked so that the car doesn’t move after being parked.

  • Your car starts in a different gear

If your car starts in a different gear other than, park, drive, or neutral, this is another warning sign that there is a broken part within your shifter. While your vehicle can still move, it’s highly advisable to bring it to a service center immediately as your shifter cable or linkage could be on its way out. 

  • Your car won’t get into gear

This is another warning sign that your car may have transmission problems. If your vehicle refuses to get into gear it could mean that the cable has been broken or the linkage is shot. Conversely, if your shifter moves too freely and you feel no resistance going into gear, this could also be a sign that something is wrong. At this point, it is best to have a mechanic check your vehicle and have it towed to a service center.

car parking

Another cause of an automatic transmission being unable to shift out of Park is a damaged shift lock. Similar to the broken cables or linkages, these are a worst-case scenario and don’t happen as often, especially with more modern vehicles. 

This is a safety feature that is designed so that you have to step on the brakes first before you can shift out of Park. This will ensure that your brakes will hold the vehicle in place before you set off. That being said, if this feature is damaged or broken you may have trouble getting your car into the gear you want. 

You can hear this safety feature activate while your vehicle is in Park and you step on the brakes. An audible click can be heard signaling that the shift lock has been disengaged. If this feature is damaged the clicking noise may become weak or you will be unable to shift out of Park. Don’t worry as there is a fail-safe to this system in the form of a small flap that you can open that is located near the gear shifter. It can also take the form of a button that you can press to override the shift lock function. You can also check your owner’s manual to find the exact location of the fail-safe in case you can’t find it immediately. Either way, it will let you shift your vehicle from Park to a different gear in an emergency situation. 

If you need to rely on the fail-safe to shift your vehicle from Park to Drive, then it is highly recommended that you bring your vehicle to a service center to have the feature fixed immediately. Be prepared for a hefty repair bill as the cost of replacing the part could cost a lot, however, this will still depend on the manufacturer. 

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