How To Park An Automatic Car Without Causing Transmission Damage

How To Park Correctly: We recently talked about the dangers of having your automatic transmission jerk or jump forward when shifting out of Park. We listed several reasons why that happens but we dedicate an entire article to what we think is the most common reason why think that jerk or jump happens once you shift out of park.

In our opinion and experience, we think that a majority of people experience those jerking problems because they don’t know how to correctly park a car with an automatic transmission without causing damage to it. We know that sounds strange but stay with us and you will see.

We will first discuss what happens when you shift into Park and why your car stays still in the first place. Then we will teach you how to park without straining the transmission and inflicting long-term damage. 

What Is A Parking Pawl And What Does It Do?

A parking pawl is essentially a metal pin that engages once a driver of a car with an automatic transmission shifts the gear lever into Park. The metal pin or the parking pawl engages in one of the gear teeth one the output shaft of the automatic transmission. A parking pawl is activated and engaged by an actuator and as you shift out of park it uses a return spring to unlatch from the gear teeth.

What would happen if you shift into park while driving?

Modern cars have systems in place that will prevent you from shifting into park while driving. However, in the case of older cars, it is completely possible. In theory, the parking pawl that would lock up your wheels is not that strong. The metal pin that is the parking pawl would instantly shatter as it would come in contact with the gear teeth. This would prevent the car from locking its wheels. 

But that does not mean that nothing would have happened, there is still a big chance that you would crash and you would surely destroy your transmission.

What is the parking pawl clunk?

The clunk that many people describe in connection to the parking pawl and shifting out of park is nothing but the sound of the parking pawl disengaging. If there is more pressure against the gear teeth of the output shaft, the louder will this clunk sound be. The clunk is also more noticeable when parking on an incline/decline and strictly relying on the parking pawl to keep the car in place.

How to know if parking pawl is broken

A broken or worn parking pawl is easily identified with the excessive play of the wheels when shifting into park. If the vehicle is not being held in place when in park, there is a big chance there are problems with the parking pawl. If the car does stay in place but still moves 1-5 inches, the parking pawl might just be worn out. If the car moves freely, the parking pawl is broken or not engaged due to a faulty actuator.

Can you drive with a broken parking pawl?

In theory, you can, but should you? Definitely not. If the parking pawl brakes, there will be metal shavings and pieces of metal floating inside the transmission which can cause catastrophic damage to your transmission. If your parking pawl is broken or damaged, tow your car to a transmission specialist as soon as possible.

How much does a new parking pawl cost?

According to our research, a new parking pawl and the cost of labor for replacement costs anywhere from 400$ to 1400$. The cost of repairs varies based on the damage to the transmission.

How To Park An Automatic Car Correctly

The title of this paragraph might sound strange but believe it or not, there is a way to correctly park a car with an automatic transmission. Most of us are taught the easy straightforward way of parking an automatic car, in fact, the dealerships themselves will teach new car buyers this way of parking. The wrong way that is.

The wrong way to park an automatic car

Step 1.: Come to a complete stop

Step 2.: Shift into Park

Step 3.: Apply the emergency brake (some people even skip this step)

Step 4.: Turn off the engine and leave.

This sounds familiar and completely ok right? Most of us have done this on a daily basis, including me. The problem with this way of parking is the fact that the entire weight of the vehicle is being held by the parking pawl of the automatic transmission and not by the e-brake. That is why you should never shift into Park before engaging the e-brake. While it is true that in the case of the parking pawl breaking, yes your car will not roll away if you engage the e-brake, you should not be putting any stress on the parking pawl in the first place.

This way of parking, especially on unlevel terrain, puts a lot of stress on the transmission and the drivetrain. It can lead to the infamous “clunk” when you shift out of Park because the parking pawl is under immense pressure.

The correct way to park a car with an automatic transmission

Step 1.: Come to a complete stop

Step 2.: Apply the handbrake while holding down the brake pedal

Step 3.: Shift into Park

Step 4.: Turn off the engine and leave.

Following these steps will ensure that the entire weight of the car is not supported by your automatic transmission. The parking brake will do all the heavy lifting (as it should) while your parking pawl in the transmission acts as a backup mechanism. The parking pawl is not designed to take on the job of the parking brake, yet the majority of people use it in such a way. 

All you need to do to park an automatic car correctly is change your habit of parking. Apply the handbrake before you shift into Park and that is it. That is all there is to it. By doing this, you are making your transmission a big favor, especially in the long term. 

Shifting out of Park is hard, why?

Shifting out of park is hard because the weight on the entire weight is being held by your transmission. To release that weight, there is an immense amount of pressure being released which is why it feels hard to shift out of Park. When parking on a hill, make sure you engage the handbrake before shifting into Park. By doing that, the weight of the car will be held by the handbrake and not by the parking pawl in the transmission. Shifting out of park on a hill will not be hard then.

How to shift out of park on a hill?

If you park your automatic car correctly by applying the handbrake before you shift into Park, there should be no difference as to how you shift out of park on a hill or on a flat surface.

Recap And Conclusion

We really wish that the correct way of parking an automatic car would be better thought both in driving schools and by dealerships that are nowadays mainly selling cars with either a standard automatic transmission, direct-shift dual-clutch DSG transmission or CVT transmission. The fact that modern cars with automatic e-brakes engage the handbrake after you shift into park makes absolutely no sense. It almost leads you to believe that car manufacturers profit from the long-term stress that is being put on the transmission by shifting into Park before you apply the handbrake.