If we’re honest with ourselves, we probably don’t know what all of our vehicle’s warning lights and symbols mean. What they mean for most of us is a slight increase in stress levels and a trip to the mechanic. Some of us choose to ignore them entirely until the car eventually breaks down.
While some warning lights may seem inconsequential, it’s important to know what they mean and how to react. Warning lights illuminate whenever there is a problem with one or more of your vehicle’s functions.
If left unchecked, minor problems can turn into major repairs. So keep a close eye on your dashboard and don’t ignore the warning signs. Most of these warning lights can be prevented with regular service and maintenance.
These strange hieroglyphics vary from vehicle to vehicle, so be sure to check your owner’s manual for specific information about your vehicle. In many cars, the warning lights will illuminate briefly when the engine is turned on to check the bulb. If warning lights remain illuminated, however, you should take your vehicle in for service.
Red, Yellow/Orange, Green, and Blue Lights
As with most things, there are levels to this. A red warning light demands immediate attention (don’t drive any further), while yellow/orange warning lights indicate a problem that needs to be serviced soon.
If you see a green or blue light, this normally indicates that a certain car function is on or currently in use.
Standard Dashboard Warning Lights
1. Check Engine Light
What it looks like: A yellow submarine
What it is: The Check Engine Light
I’m sure we’ve all seen this one before. It’s one of the more serious lights to pay attention to and normally indicates an emissions or general engine running problem. Sometimes the word “check” appears near the engine symbol, sometimes not at all. Older vehicles may not have a symbol at all, just the text “Check Engine” or “Service Engine Soon.”
In many vehicles, the check engine light illuminates whenever the engine is turned on to check the bulb. If the light stays illuminated, the car’s diagnostic systems have detected a malfunction that needs to be investigated. If the check engine light begins to flash or blink, this may indicate an engine misfire is occurring.
What to do: If the check engine light stays on, take the vehicle in to be serviced as soon as you can.
If the check engine light is blinking, drive delicately at moderate speeds (slow acceleration and deceleration) until you can get your car to a mechanic. It can be very dangerous and damaging to drive while the check engine light is flashing! Click here for more reasons why your check engine light might be on.
2. Battery Light
What it looks like: A winking robot
What it is: The Battery/Charging System Light
The battery light indicates that the car’s charging system is short of power or is not charging properly. This can lead to electrical problems involving your power steering, braking, lights, and engine. It normally indicates a problem with the battery itself or the alternator.
What to do: Take your vehicle in to get serviced as soon as you can. Most likely, you just need to replace your battery. Other causes may include wiring problems, a faulty alternator, or a faulty battery.
3. Temperature Warning Light
What it looks like: A pirate ship or a key submerged in water
What it is: The Engine/Coolant Temperature Warning Light
The temperature warning light means that the engine is, or is very close to overheating.
Some cars may not have a specific engine warning light. You may only have a temperature gauge with a red section (H) at the highest end of the gauge. If the needle enters the red section, the engine is overheating and should be stopped as soon as safely possible.
Other times, an “engine overheating” or “temp” message will illuminate, sometimes alternating with a flashing radiator or fan icon.
What to do: Never drive with an overheating engine! Stop driving as soon as you possibly can and switch off the engine to allow the engine to cool.
If the engine temperature warning light comes on again, you probably have a problem with your coolant, radiator, or water pump. Drive the car at a low speed to your local mechanic.
WARNING: NEVER open the coolant reservoir cap while the engine is hot or running.
4. Oil Pressure Warning
What it looks like: A magic genie lamp or a Neti pot
What it is: The Engine Oil Pressure Indicator Light
The oil pressure warning light indicates a loss of oil pressure, meaning lubrication is low or lost completely.
What to do: Do not drive while this light is illuminated! If you see this light come on while driving, stop the car as soon as it is safe to do so.
You should check your motor oil level and pressure as soon as you can. If that doesn’t get the light to turn off, have your vehicle checked out by a professional mechanic before you do any more damage to your vehicle.
5. ABS Warning
What it looks like: An abs workout reminder
What it is: The Antilock Brake System (if equipped)
The antilock brake system regulates brake pressure to prevent wheels from locking during braking. If the ABS is not working properly, the wheels may lock up and cause a dangerous driving situation.
If the ABS light remains on, the antilock brake system needs professional diagnosis. Sometimes the warning light is only text, such as “Antilock” or “ABS.” In some vehicles, the ABS warning is red. In others, it is yellow or orange.
In some vehicles, the ABS turns on when the antilock brake system is active. If it remains on, however, ABS safety features have been turned off.
What to do: If the ABS light stays lit, a malfunction in your antilock brake system has been detected. Have your vehicle professionally serviced as soon as you can.
6. Airbag Indicator
What it looks like: A meteor is heading your way
What it is: The Airbag Indicator, a.k.a. Supplemental Restraint System (SRS)
The airbag warning light indicates something wrong with your airbag system. For the safety of you and your passengers, take the vehicle in for service as soon as possible.
What to do: If the airbag light does not illuminate when you turn the ignition, continues to flash, or stays illuminated, one or more of your airbags are malfunctioning. Take the vehicle in for service immediately.
7. Safety Belt Reminder
What it looks like: An obese child wearing a bandolier
What it is: The Seat Belt Reminder Light
Chiming or beeping usually accompanies the seat belt reminder light.
What to do: Fasten your seat belt! If your seat belt is fastened, the warning light may come on if you have a lot of weight on one of the seats. Either remove the weight or buckle the seat belt on the corresponding seat.
8. Brake System Warning
What it looks like: A Pokémon gym is nearby
What it is: The Brake System Warning Light
This warning light illuminates when there is a problem with your brakes. You may also see a light that says “Brake.” This can indicate that the parking brake is applied, there is low brake fluid, or the brake system needs to be inspected immediately.
If the light only comes on when you pressing down on the brake pedal, you may have a problem with your hydraulic circuits (bad hose, leaky disk caliber, or something else). If the pedal feels loose or goes to the floor, pull the vehicle over as soon as safely possible.
What to do: Check the brake fluid and make sure the parking brake isn’t on. If adding brake fluid and releasing the parking brake doesn’t turn the light off, have the brake system inspected immediately.
If both the ABS and Brake Light Warning lights come on, you could have a seriously dangerous problem with your brakes. Stop the car as soon as safely possible and get your brake system inspected.
9. TPMS (Tire Pressure Monitoring System)
What it looks like: A boiling cauldron
What it is: The Tire Pressure Warning Light (if equipped)
Some vehicles come with a tire pressure monitoring system. The light comes on when one or more of your tires have low pressure. It is usually red or yellow.
What to do: Check the tire pressure on all of your tires. Refer to your owner’s manual for recommended PSI levels.
10. Check Gas Cap
What it looks like: A big screw is stuck in your car
What it is: The Gas Cap Warning Light
If the gas/fuel cap is not properly tightened, the gas cap warning light will come on. Some vehicles display text instead, such as “Check Gas Cap.” The gas cap prevents fuel from evaporating out of the tank and keeps rain, dust, and other things from entering the tank. If left unattended, the check engine light will illuminate.
What to do: Pull over and tighten the gas cap. If you drive around with your gas cap loose or missing, the check engine light will normally come on. If tightening the gas cap doesn’t work, you may have a cracked or damaged cap. Go to your local auto parts store to find a replacement (they are quite cheap). If that doesn’t do the trick, take the vehicle to your dealer or mechanic.
– Images courtesy of Bigstock
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