Dashboard Warning Lights: Decoding What They Mean
Your dashboard is programmed with seemingly endless symbols and icons that light up to tell you something is wrong with your car. What do they all mean—and how urgent are they, anyway?
Our cars seem to get more and more complicated, and while all the latest technology is great, and can even help keep us safer on the roads, deciphering your vehicle’s signals can sometimes feel like you’re trying to read another language.
The images and symbols that illuminate on your dashboard are there to warn you of a problem with your vehicle. Here’s a look at some of those common dashboard warning lights and what you should do when the lights turn on.
LOW FUEL INDICATOR
This easy-to-understand indicator letting you know it’s time to fill up is one of the more self-explanatory lights.
What it looks like: This light is in the shape of a fuel pump.
What to do: Find the nearest gas station and fill your gas tank.
DOOR OPEN LIGHT
You wouldn’t want to drive away if one or more doors aren’t secure, and thanks to this intuitive symbol, your car will make sure to notify you if a door is ajar.
What it looks like: An aerial view of a car, with the doors open. In some vehicles, the light will specifically let you know which door isn’t closed.
What to do: Stop the car and close the open door. If all the doors are already closed, be sure to check the trunk.
CHECK ENGINE LIGHT
This is one of the scariest lights to see, partly because it could mean disaster is looming or it could just mean there’s a minor issue (like you didn’t screw the gas cap on all the way last time you filled the tank).
What it looks like: It typically takes the form of a silhouetted engine. Sometimes the light is accompanied with the words “CHECK ENGINE.”
What to do: If your car feels and drives normally, don’t panic, but do make an appointment with your dealer or mechanic as soon as possible. If the vehicle is making odd noises or isn’t operating as it should, then it could signal a more serious and potentially expensive problem. Pull over and call a tow truck.
TIRE PRESSURE MONITORING SYSTEM
Thanks to the fact that most modern cars are equipped with tire pressure monitors, you don’t have to worry so much that you’ll get an unexpected flat. Your car will let you know if your tires are either under- or overinflated.
What it looks like: This symbol looks like a parentheses with an exclamation point in the middle, and squiggly lines along the bottom to represent tire tread.
What to do: You should be able to look at your car’s infotainment system to identify which of your tires isn’t properly inflated. Check the owner’s manual for the specific menu option and instructions. Once you know which tire is causing the trouble, refill that tire to the correct tire pressure rating. Turn your car off and back on, and see if the light alerts you again. If it won’t turn off, it’s possible that the tire is damaged and needs to be replaced or repaired.
When this one lights up, it’s possibly telling you that your vehicle’s charging system isn’t functioning properly. However, just as with the check engine light, it might be indicative of another problem altogether.
What it looks like: This indicator usually takes the shape of an outline of a car battery, with a plus and minus sign.
What to do: Even if the car starts and drives normally, get your battery checked out as soon as you can. If the battery itself isn’t to blame, you might have a loose or corroded battery cable, a worn alternator or accessory belt, or a problem with the electrical system.
ENGINE OIL PRESSURE WARNING
You definitely don’t want to drive around if there’s an issue with your oil pressure, because that could be a serious problem that results in a big bill from your mechanic. But the trouble with this indicator is that it could mean something as easy as your car needing its oil topped off, or it might be something that needs immediate professional attention, such as a leak in the engine.
What it looks like: This indicator resembles a retro oil can with a drop of oil coming out of the spout.
What to do: Before you head to the mechanic, check the engine’s dipstick to see if oil levels are low. If they are, add some oil, then check that the light turns off after you’ve turned your car back on. If the indicator doesn’t go away, then it’s time to check with the pros.
You rely on your brakes to control your speed and to bring your vehicle to a complete stop. But just as with any other part of your vehicle, the brake system can have problems. When this light comes on, it sometimes just means you’re trying to drive with the parking brake on, but it could also be letting you know that you need to replace your brake pads, that brake fuel is low, or that your anti-lock braking system (ABS) isn’t functioning correctly.
What it looks like: This warning light looks like an exclamation mark inside a circle with parentheses on either side. In some vehicles, it’s the letters “ABS” inside a circle with parentheses.
What to do: If it’s not the parking brake, then get the issue diagnosed as quickly as possible by visiting your mechanic.
TRACTION CONTROL AND STABILITY CONTROL
Many vehicles today have traction and stability control systems that use your anti-lock brake system to determine if one wheel is spinning faster than the others or slipping. If it detects this, it applies the brakes to regain traction.
What it looks like: Often this indicator takes the form of a car with curvy lines underneath.
What to do: Most of the time, this light is simply alerting you to the fact that your traction control system is active and doing its job, especially in rainy or snowy conditions. However, if it comes on when roads are dry and you’re driving moderate speeds, it might be indicative of a flaw in the system. Some vehicles will let you adjust how these systems engage. Be sure to check with your mechanic or dealer if it continues to be a problem.
ENGINE COOLANT TEMPERATURE LIGHT
If your coolant level is low or your engine is overheating, then you’ll see this warning. There are some serious issues related to coolant levels and temperature that could damage your engine.
What it looks like: A thermometer going for a swim.
What to do: Definitely don’t ignore this one, because it could lead to much more serious engine troubles, like a broken water pump, a leaking or burst coolant hose, or damage to the radiator. Have your mechanic diagnose it as soon as you can.
You know that your airbags are supposed to deploy in the event of a collision, and if this light turns on when you start your vehicle, then goes away, that’s just your car letting you know your airbags are there. But if the light remains on, it could be an issue with the electronic control unit or other computer problem, or if your airbag has deployed and wasn’t reset, that can also cause the light to come on.
What it looks like: A person sitting in a car seat, with a circle in front of them.
What to do: Definitely get it checked out to confirm that the airbags haven’t become deactivated or are faulty. It’s quite possibly a computer issue that can be reset.
See a dashboard light that we didn’t talk about here? Check your owners manual for a full list of warning lights and indicators in your vehicle.
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