Will Shifting While Driving Damage Your Car?

Have you often wondered if shifting your automatic while driving down the road is harmful to your engine?   Well rest at easy because the myth is bunk!   Here’s an obvious but fundamental difference between people who learned to drive stick and those who’ve driven only automatics.  Stick drivers are used to shifting while driving, but in an automatic, you shift only when stopped.  Perhaps because of that, many drivers hesitate shifting while driving with terror, fearing that they’ll damage or blow their engine or cause some awful mechanical shriek by sticking their car in neutral.   Even worse, that they’ll accidentally put it into reverse or park while cruising down the highway.  I admit that I am one of those people who have thought this as well plus they never taught this in Drivers Ed so I’ve been hesitant of shifting while driving.

I’m here to tell you: Don’t be afraid. Your engine won’t let you destroy it, and shifting into neutral at speed could save you from yourself.  Here’s why: Government and private studies have shown that most all sudden-acceleration crashes have happened when a driver unintentionally presses the accelerator mistaking it for the brake.  There is a big difference between your brake & your gas pedal, so you’d know it: hundreds of experiments —some that have started above 100 mph—in which both the accelerator and brake were pushed to the floor. The vehicles came to a full & complete stop with the engine screaming wildly. The brake will overpower the engine in every reasonably well-maintained vehicle.

That said throttles can stick open.  If the throttle’s stuck and the driver fails to press hard enough on the brake, or pumps the brakes until the vacuum assist is depleted, the car may not come to a full stop. The point: Regardless of whether your throttle is actually stuck or you’re just mistakenly slamming on the gas, the answer is to put the car in neutral. If the throttle is stuck, shifting into neutral will prevent the car from accelerating.  If you’re like most sufferers of unintended acceleration—you’re just aiming for the brake and missing—then the same is true. You won’t be able to accelerate no matter how hard you hit the gas if the car is in neutral, so that baby isn’t going anywhere.
Neutral also comes in handy when you’re in the passenger seat. If Grandpa mistakes the gas for the brake, moving the gear selector into neutral may prevent a crash. The ability to slow a learner’s-permit-holding teen with a quick slap into neutral quells many parents’ fears.  No matter how much you want to slap your teen resist the urge & slap the gear shift instead, I know it’s tempting but don’t.

Still, when people ask about unintended acceleration and their told, “Put it in neutral,” the response is almost always the same: “But won’t that blow up the engine?” Nope. The engine’s electronic limiter will prevent that. Even if it didn’t, would you rather total the car or damage the engine?

The person seeking advice typically ignores questions and, panic’s asking, “But what if it goes into reverse or park?” It won’t. First, depending on your car, the shift lever won’t move to the reverse or park position unless you press the physical button on the shifter. New cars with electronically controlled transmissions may not have such physical barriers, but they’ll ignore your inappropriate request to park or go in reverse while you’re moving. A few go into park at about one-half mile per hour.

A U.S. Department of Transportation spokesman couldn’t find any law that requires automakers to idiot-proof the transmissions.  However, no vehicle that’s been tested in the past 15-plus years will go into reverse with the car moving forward.

So there you go. Your engine won’t blow if you shift it into neutral while in motion. And the answer to “What happens if you accidentally select reverse or park?” is either “Nothing” or “You can’t.”  So put your mind at ease, take a drive & know that it’s okay to shift the gears if you desire.

Written by Holly at Dealership Rapid City