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Dead Car Battery? This Simple Hack Lets You Shift to Neutral


So you left a car in the garage all winter and now would like to take it out for a nice spring drive. You pack it up, step inside, turn the key and … nothing. Luckily, you have another car to serve as a jumper, but you’ll have to get the vehicle with the dead car battery out of the garage first. Frustratingly, you find it’s stuck in park. What do you do?

Locked Out

Manual transmissions require drivers to shift between drive gears according to moment-to-moment conditions. Automatic transmissions take the guesswork out by automatically switching between drive gears based on what is required at the time. Automatics might make things easier, but they also open the door to potential damage if a driver tries to shift into reverse, park or neutral prematurely. To help avoid this and to prevent drivers from accidentally bumping the shift lever into neutral after parking on an incline or suddenly reversing in traffic, the brake-shift interlock was introduced. It’s a small lever that jams the gear in place. Mandated by law on all vehicles made after 2010 and sold in the U.S., this function prevents the transmission from shifting without also applying the brakes. Normal functioning of the shift lock also requires the key to be in the “on” or “run” position, as it relies on the braking circuit to send the release signal.

Preliminary Measurescar console with a dead car battery

When you have a dead car battery, turning the key does nothing. If you press the brakes, no signal is sent, and the shift lock will not disengage. You definitely need to put it in neutral to move it, though, so it’s time for a little manual action. Not all vehicles made before 2010 are equipped with a shift lock, but for those that are, the operation is mostly the same. First, turn your key to the “on” position and engage your parking brake. This will prevent any unexpected movement when you do finally get to neutral.

A Handy Bypass

Look in the console near the shift lever or shift dial. You should see a small plastic cover; it’s usually a square that blends in with its surroundings, and it might have a small slot. If you don’t see it there, check your owner’s manual for the location of the manual park release. Use a flathead screwdriver to carefully pry this cover off, taking care not to damage the console. Once off, put it in a safe place to avoid losing it. In the console, you will now see a small tab. Take the flathead or a key and — while pressing the brake pedal — push it down or over, depending on your vehicle. Don’t apply too much pressure. Check your owner’s manual to confirm which direction you should push if you feel excessive resistance. While holding the tab down, grab the shift lever or dial as you normally would (holding in the button if it is a lever) and try to shift to neutral.

Be sure to replace the cover and disengage the parking brake before trying to move the car anywhere. Of course, if you are manually pushing a car or have it sitting in neutral, always make sure that there is someone inside to steer or apply brakes as needed. Push the car where you need it, and once there, return the gear to park and reapply the parking brake.

Check out all of the batteries available on NAPAonline or trust one of our 17,000 NAPA Auto Care locations for routine maintenance and repairs. For more information on a dead car battery, chat with a knowledgeable expert at your local NAPA Auto Parts store.


Blair Lampe View All

Blair Lampe is a New York-based professional mechanic, blogger, theater technician, and speechwriter.  In her downtime she enjoys backpacking wherever her boots will carry her, rock climbing, experimental theatre, a crisp rosé , and showering love on her 2001 Sierra truck.

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