Car Stuck in Neutral: Causes, Diagnosis and Solution

It is unfortunate, but it still happens. Your car can stick in neutral gear and won’t move unless gravity is in your favor. So, what causes it, and how can you fix the problem?

The cause of a car stuck in neutral gear varies depending on your car’s transmission system. It can be due to low automatic transmission fluid, faulty brake light switch, damaged or worn-out gear shifter cable, malfunctioning transmission control module, etc.

Read on as we explore all causes and fixes, covering both cases of vehicles with manual and automatic transmission systems.

What Does It Mean To Be Stuck in Neutral?

As the name implies, a car stuck in neutral does not change gear regardless of the force you put on the gear lever. Everything seems locked to neutral, and no way to get out of this situation.

Let’s highlight how the car can move to understand why this happens. The car’s engine is the powerhouse. It generates the torque and power needed to turn the wheels. This passes through the transmission system, a set of gears.

A transmission system allows the car to engage the right gear depending on the speed and loading. If its component is faulty, the engine might be overloaded and stall. In some cases, the car fails to change gear and remains stuck in neutral.

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Reasons Why the Car is Stuck in Neutral

Your car can remain stuck in neutral gear whether it has an automatic or manual transmission system. And since the working principles and components differ, causes will also vary.

Let’s dive deeper into some of the most common causes of cars sticking in neutral gear.

Low Levels of Automatic Transmission Fluid

An automatic transmission fluid (ATF) does two functions in automatic cars; enable gear shifting and cooling the components. The gears may slip or fail to engage if it gets low. This makes the car stuck in neutral gear.

Damaged or Worn-out Gear Shifter Cable

The gear shifter cable connects the shifter handle or lever to the transmission. The force applied to the lever is transferred to the transmission system to change gears through it. If it is broken or damaged in any way, shifting gears becomes a problem.

Damaged or Malfunctioning Transmission Control Module

The transmission control module (TCM) is the brain of the transmission system, especially in cars with automatic transmissions. It uses several inputs, such as car speed, to determine when to appropriately shift gears.

If faulty or malfunctioning, the TCM might fail to shift gears appropriately or keep the car stuck in neutral as a fail-safe feature. However, this is still dangerous if it happens when on highways.

Faulty Brake Light Switch

Many vehicle components are interrelated, and it’s not easy to imagine how a faulty brake light switch can keep your car stuck in neutral. Whether you believe it or not, it still happens.

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By design, the brake light switch keeps you from shifting out of park or neutral gear if you don’t press the brake pedal. But for some reason, it might not get the right signals when you step on the brake pedal.

Fortunately, the brake light switch lasts the lifespan of the car. You will rarely have problems with it unless someone intentionally removed or disabled it.  

Defective Neutral Safety Switch

As the name implies, a neutral safety switch is a safety feature incorporated in the automatic transmission system to prevent the car from being started in gear. You can start the engine only if the transmission is in park or neutral. Also, a faulty neutral safety switch may cause the car to stick in neutral gear.

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Damaged Transmission Gears

Car Stuck in Neutral

This is self-explanatory! As mentioned, a transmission system consists of gears with teeth. These can be damaged due to poor maintenance and abuse. Your driving style also significantly contributes to damage to transmission gears.

Stuck On Solenoid of Automatic Transmission

By definition, solenoids are components that act like valves to control the flow of ATF to aid gear shifting. These can wear over time and malfunction, keeping the car in neutral gear.

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Jammed Parking Pawl

Your car can also get stuck in neutral due to a jammed parking pawl. A parking pawl is a spring-loaded device that holds the vehicle in the first gear when parked. A faulty parking pawl can prevent your car from moving out of park to neutral gear or vice versa.

Faulty Ignition Switch

Faulty Ignition Switch

An ignition switch does more than turn on accessories and start the engine. It also controls how gears engage and lock to allow your car to move by sending signals to the solenoid telling it to change gears. That explains why a faulty or imprecise ignition switch can cause the vehicle to be stuck in neutral gear.

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Faulty Shift Lock Mechanism

Some automatic cars have a shift lock mechanism. This safety feature prevents the vehicle from rolling down the road without an experienced driver behind the wheel. It keeps the transmission locked regardless of how you move the lever.

A faulty shift lock mechanism may fail to recognize you in the driver’s seat and will continue holding the car.

Solution to Car Stuck in Gear

Getting your car out of gear involves diagnosing all the possible causes and acting accordingly. The first step would be checking the ATF level using a deep stick and topping it up if necessary. But you should check all the components mentioned for any faults.

Understanding the causes of your car sticking in neutral gear can be challenging is not knowledgeable about cars. Contact a qualified mechanic to help you troubleshoot and fix it if you are not an advanced DIYer.

FAQs

How often should you check the gear shifter cable?

Gear shifter cables often last 6 years, but premature failure is also possible. There is no specific time when to inspect this component. However, you can do it if moving the gear lever does not shift transmission or if there is no resistance when moving the lever.

How often should you replace or top up automatic transmission fluid?

The service life of an automatic transmission fluid depends on the car you drive. Most automakers recommend changing it after 60,000-100,000 miles in automatic vehicles and 30,0000-60,000 in manual cars.

How much does it cost to repair a gear shift problem?

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The cost of repairing a gear shift problem depends on the faulty component you should replace. Gear shifter cable costs about $300-$400 for parts and labor. The figure can vary significantly if the culprit is transmission gears.

How do you get a manual transmission unstuck?

Unstick a manual transmission by examining the underlying problem and fixing it. However, you can be lucky if jiggling it back and forth makes the gears shift again.

Final Thoughts

Do not be freaked with a gear shift problem. It is sometimes caused by simple and seemingly unrelated failures, as seen in this article. The only time you might be shocked is when you have to make an overhaul of the entire transmission system. This will cost you much more, and your car may take days to be back on the road.

Get the most experienced auto technician to help you accurately diagnose the cause and solve the underlying problem. The DIY approach might be time-consuming and might result in misdiagnosis.