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Problems are bound to arise whenever you’re out on the road. These issues can be something simple like a worn-out headlight bulb or one that’s complicated like a busted radiator. Another common complaint from many drivers is a transmission that’s stuck in neutral.

Why Is My Car Stuck In Neutral?

There are several reasons why your vehicle could be stuck in neutral. Here are the most common ones.

Low Transmission Fluid

The transmission fluid serves as the medium to control transmission shifting. Solenoids direct the fluid, which travels through the transmission’s passageways.

checking of low car transmission fluid
The transmission fluid is essentially the lifeblood of the transmission. So when the vehicle is low on transmission fluid, the gears can slip and get stuck in neutral.

The transmission fluid is also responsible for performing these duties:

  • Transferring power in the torque converter
  • Providing hydraulic pressure in clutches and servos
  • Lubricating bearings, bushings, and gears
  • Transferring heat to cool transmission parts
  • Providing the correct friction for clutch and band operation

The transmission fluid is essentially the lifeblood of the transmission. So when the vehicle is low on transmission fluid, the gears can slip and get stuck in neutral.  Low transmission fluid levels that reach extremely hot temperatures can also cause internal components to wear out.

Neglecting maintenance tasks for the transmission can result in a stuck gear, as well as damaged fluid lines, torque pump, and axle seal.

Damaged Transmission Shift Cable

The transmission shift cable links the shifter handle to the transmission. It’s the component that lets you shift to gears like drive, reverse, and park.

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Over time, the cable or cable ends can break because of overstretching. It’s an issue more common in manual transmissions than automatic ones because the shifter is always used in the former.

Faulty Transmission Control Module

The transmission control module (TCM) works closely with the powertrain control module (PCM) to ensure the gears are being shifted at the right time.

If the TCM receives faulty signals or inputs from sensors or the PCM, the vehicle might not shift smoothly, go into limp mode, or get stuck in neutral.

Damaged Transmission Gears

Transmissions have gear sets and trains that help the driver control how much torque is being requested from the engine. Over time, the gears can get damaged and keep the shifter stuck in neutral.

Partially Engaged Clutch

On manual transmissions, stepping on the clutch pedal lets you shift from one gear to another. The clutch pedal linkage essentially transfers the force of the driver’s foot to the throwout release bearing.

A leak in the hydraulic clutch linkage or a misadjusted linkage can result in a partially disengaged clutch, making it hard or impossible to shift between gears.

Once this happens, you can try turning the engine off. This might let you shift into your desired gear. However, keep in mind that once you start the engine in your desired gear, the clutch pedal will cause the gear to go in a certain direction.

Keep in mind that once you start the engine in your desired gear, the clutch pedal will cause the gear to go in a certain direction.

Anthony Harlin, ASE Certified Master Automobile Technician

Defective Neutral Safety Switch

Most automatic transmission vehicles have a neutral safety switch, which prevents the starter motor from operating unless the gear selector is in neutral or park.

The neutral safety switch opens the circuit between the ignition switch and the starter. It’s usually in the steering column near the floor or on the side of the transmission.

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This electronic switch also prevents two gears from engaging simultaneously, especially when you’re driving down a steep hill or on uneven road surfaces.

A blown fuse, broken relay, or other electrical faults can cause the switch to fail. Once it does, you might notice the following symptoms:

  • The engine starts in park instead of neutral
  • The engine starts in any gear
  • The engine won’t start at all

The Vehicle Is in Limp Mode

Your vehicle might be stuck in neutral because the engine is in limp mode.

Faults in the electronic throttle system can trigger this fail-safe mode. Once the PCM activates limp mode, you’ll notice the following:

  • Engine speed is limited to the default speed (1,200 to 1,600 rpm)
  • There’s slow or no accelerator response
  • Cruise control system is disabled
  • Electronic throttle control warning light is illuminated

Some of the reasons why the vehicle goes into limp mode include:

Jammed Parking Pawl

The parking pawl locks the gears into place to prevent the vehicle from rolling away when it’s in park mode. Shifting into park pushes a metal pin into one of the notches in the output shaft, preventing it from turning.

But like any other component, the parking pawl can fail after some time and might even cause your car to get stuck in neutral.

Another thing that can happen with the parking pawl when the vehicle is parked uphill is that it can get very tight and difficult to release. This can happen if the parking brake is not set or adjusted properly, causing the vehicle to roll back.

Clogged Transmission Filter

changing of car automatic transmission filter
Sticky gears can be the result of a clogged transmission filter, which can mess with the vehicle’s hydraulic system.

Sticky gears can be the result of a clogged transmission filter, which can mess with the vehicle’s hydraulic system. A clogged filter can produce low pressure in the transmission, affecting its performance.

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Resolving the Issue

In some cases, shifting through all the gears while the engine is off can get the gearshift off the neutral position, which is a lot like restarting a computer when the monitor’s frozen.

Unfortunately, this method won’t always work. A car that’s stuck in neutral might require more extensive repairs than a simple override.

Resolving transmission issues can be quite tricky, especially if you’re not a seasoned DIYer.

You might want to consider taking your vehicle to the nearest auto repair shop. Have a trained professional work on its transmission to ensure all the steps in the diagnosis and repair process are followed correctly.

Caring for Your Transmission

A stuck gear is only one of the many problems you’ll encounter if you neglect periodic maintenance checks. Here are some tips on how to take care of your transmission.

Top Up on Transmission Fluid Regularly

The transmission fluid ensures all parts are working as they should, so consult your owner’s manual to know when it’s time to flush and replace the fluid and filter.

Avoid Changing Gears When in Motion

Shifting gears, particularly from drive to reverse, can put too much strain on the transmission and cause its parts to wear out faster than usual.

Have the Cooling System Serviced

Aside from preventing the engine from overheating, the cooling system also ensures the transmission fluid that flows through the transmission is cooled.

About The Authors
Anthony Harlin, ASE Certified Master Automobile Technician
Reviewed By Anthony Harlin, ASE Certified Master Automobile Technician

Technical Reviewer at

Tony Harlin is a Master Gas and Diesel Diagnostic Technician with over 18 years of experience. He works full-time at a large independent automotive shop as a driveability and repair technician working on all types of vehicles with a focus on diesels. ASE certifications include A1-A9, L1 and L2, as well as X1.

CarParts Research Team
Written By Research Team

Automotive and Tech Writers

The Research Team is composed of experienced automotive and tech writers working with (ASE)-certified automobile technicians and automotive journalists to bring up-to-date, helpful information to car owners in the US. Guided by's thorough editorial process, our team strives to produce guides and resources DIYers and casual car owners can trust.

Any information provided on this Website is for informational purposes only and is not intended to replace consultation with a professional mechanic. The accuracy and timeliness of the information may change from the time of publication.

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