It's OK not to push the button

Dear Tom and Ray:

We are Americans living in England, and have a 2000 VW Beetle automatic that I named Betty. I hope you can settle a domestic argument for us (preferably by siding with me). The VW is my "baby," and until I started living with Matt, the car was aging, but otherwise the transmission was fine. In the year since Matt started driving her, Betty's transmission has seriously deteriorated. I think it's because Matt changes gears without pressing in the little button on the shifter. My understanding was that if you don't press the little button before moving the shifter (like from R to D, or D to 2), you can strip the gears and ruin the transmission. Matt says it doesn't matter, and he changes gears in the automatic like it's a stick shift. So, is he hurting the transmission by failing to press the little button?— Elaine

Tom: No. It's more likely that he's hurting the transmission by driving your car like an animal, Elaine.

Ray: Right. The little button that you press with your thumb is the "shift lock." It's designed to prevent you from shifting into the wrong gear accidentally.

Tom: It's an extra step the car forces you to take — to say, in effect, "Are you sure you want to move the shifter there now?" For instance, when you're in park, the button prevents you from knocking the shifter with your elbow and putting it in reverse. You have to deliberately push the button to do that.

Ray: And if you're in drive, your very excitable Labrador retriever can't knock the shifter into reverse or park. Why? Because it also requires that extra step — pushing the shift-lock button — and the dog hasn't learned how to press the button yet. In that way, he's a lot like Matt.

Tom: So the shift-lock button inserts an extra step that you have to take if you want to do something that could be dangerous — to you or to the car.

Ray: On the other hand, shifts that are not considered dangerous can be made without pushing the button. The allowable shifts can differ from car to car, but generally speaking, shifting from reverse to drive, when you're stopped or going slowly, is not considered dangerous. Shifting from drive to neutral rarely is considered dangerous. So you needn't press the button for those moves.

Tom: Right. If the shifter moves without requiring the button be pressed, then it's OK to move it without pressing the button.