Blog Car Care Advice Dashboard Lights 101: What They Mean & How to Fix Them
Car Care Advice

Dashboard Lights 101: What They Mean & How to Fix Them

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Whether it’s a seat belt sign or the dreaded “Check Engine Light,” lit dashboard icons aren’t something you want to disregard. 

Ignoring or misunderstanding these dashboard warnings can quickly turn a minor inconvenience into a wallet-draining catastrophe. 

“But there are so many of them,” you say.
What do they all mean? 

Fear not! 
We’ll help you decode, understand, and tackle those cryptic symbols like a seasoned automotive detective, but first, let’s explore the role of the dashboard lights.

This Article Contains

Let’s decode the puzzle.

Importance of Car Dashboard Lights

Dashboard lights are your car’s way of communicating with you through symbols associated with different car parts. 

But wait!
Not every dashboard light means an imminent danger to your vehicle. Some lights are simple indicators to show that a specific feature is activated or that you need to use a safety feature before you start your ride. 

When it comes to dashboard lights, colors also matter. Not all cars support the same color scheme, but in general:

With the basics out of the way, let’s check out what these dashboard lights mean. 

12 Common Dashboard Warning Lights and How to Resolve Them 

Here are some common car warning lights and what they indicate: 

1. Check Engine Light

What it is:
The Check Engine Light presents as a silhouetted engine or simply as an all-caps “CHECK ENGINE” message.

However, the engine light is the most ambiguous warning light as it can relate to anything with your car motor or emission system. Sometimes, a loose gas cap can also trigger the engine warning light. 

What to do:
If the Check Engine Light turns on or is blinking and the vehicle begins operating erratically or making strange noises, it needs immediate attention. Pull over immediately and call for a tow. But, if the engine light illuminates while driving and nothing seems wrong, you can continue driving, but your next stop should be an auto shop. 

2. Battery Warning Light

What it is:
This warning light appears as a battery-shaped icon, indicating something’s amiss with your vehicle’s electrical system.

This dashboard warning light could activate due to a faulty alternator, a weak battery, loose or damaged cables, or even a malfunctioning voltage regulator.

What to do:
Firstly, don’t panic!

Inspect the battery connections. Make sure they are securely fastened, clean, and free from corrosion. If the connections seem fine, assess the battery condition with a multimeter or seek assistance from a professional mechanic. A weak or dead battery could be the reason.

Sometimes, a faulty alternator could prevent it from charging properly. 

3. Brake Warning Light

What it is:
Represented as an exclamation mark inside a circle or the word “BRAKE” in red, this warning light signifies that there might be an issue with your vehicle’s braking system.

The brake light could come on due to low brake fluid, pad wear, or a malfunctioning brake system. 

In some vehicles, an engaged parking brake can also trigger the brake system warning light.

What to do:
Check if your parking brake is engaged and release it. Also, check if your car needs a brake fluid top-up. If the brake warning light is still on, get your car towed to a repair shop or call a mobile mechanic to inspect the brake system.

4. Tire Pressure Warning Light

What it is: 
A Tire Pressure Monitoring System light resembles an exclamation mark within a horseshoe-like shape, representing a tire.

When the tire pressure warning light comes on, it indicates that the tire pressure in one or more of your tires is either too low or too high. 

What to do: 
Check for high or low tire pressure and adjust it to the recommended levels given in the owners manual. While checking the tire pressure, inspect your tires for cuts, bulges, or punctures. 

If you’ve fixed the tire pressure and there’s no physical damage, but the warning light persists or reoccurs, it could indicate a malfunction in the tire pressure monitoring system (TPMS). Get a qualified mechanic to diagnose and resolve any TPMS-related issues.

5. Engine Temperature Warning Light

What it is:
Also called the coolant warning light, this symbol resembles a thermometer submerged in liquid or a thermometer with wavy lines indicating heat.

The engine temperature warning light indicates that the engine or coolant temperature is higher than the normal operating range, signaling a potential overheating issue. The coolant warning light could come on due to a broken water pump, low coolant level, coolant leak, or a faulty radiator

What to do: 

6. Engine Oil Pressure Warning Light

What it is:
The engine oil pressure warning light resembles an oil can or oil lamp. This warning light alerts you when there is a drop in engine oil pressure, indicating a potential problem with the lubrication system, like a blown piston ring or a broken oil pump. 

It can also indicate low oil pressure due to insufficient oil and that your car needs an oil top-up to prevent engine damage.

What to do:

7. Traction Control Warning Light

What it is:
This warning light resembles a car with squiggly lines or skid marks. It indicates when there’s a problem with your vehicle’s traction control system. 

When the traction control system malfunctions, it may result in reduced traction during acceleration and increase the risk of losing control of the vehicle, especially on slippery or uneven surfaces.

What to do: 
Try turning off the engine and restarting the vehicle to see if the traction control light disappears. If not, continue driving, but be aware of slippery conditions.

If this warning light is accompanied by other warning lights, such as the ABS (Anti-lock Braking System) or Check Engine Light, it’s advisable to seek professional assistance. 

8. ABS Warning Light

What it is:
The ABS warning light is represented by the letters “ABS” inside a circle or as an illuminated brake system icon. The ABS light indicates a fault within the ABS system (Anti-lock Braking System) that’s responsible for enhancing the vehicle’s stability and control.

What to do: 
While the primary braking system should still function, get the ABS module inspected to ensure optimal braking performance. 

9. Airbag Warning Light

What it is:
The airbag warning light is represented as a person seated with an inflated airbag in front of them. It indicates that something is wrong with an airbag or the entire airbag system.

A faulty airbag could potentially increase the risk of injury during a collision.

What to do: 
Get your car checked out immediately! 

10. Transmission Temperature Warning Light

What it is:
The transmission dashboard light resembles a thermometer or a gear with wavy lines and may include the letter “T” or “TMP” to indicate temperature. It illuminates when the transmission fluid temperature rises above the recommended operating range.

What to do
Pull over, turn off the vehicle, and wait for it to cool down before driving again. Inspect for low transmission fluid level and top it up or get to a repair shop as soon as possible.

11. Light Out Warning Light

What it is: 
This warning light alerts you when your vehicle’s exterior light malfunctions or there’s a blown fuse. This can include headlights, taillights, brake lights, turn signals, etc.

What to do:
Check all your vehicle’s exterior lights and replace the faulty ones. If the bulb isn’t the issue, get a mechanic to check for loose connections, wirings, or a blown fuse. 

12. Power Steering Warning Light

What it is:
The power steering light is represented with a red or yellow steering wheel icon, often with an exclamation point on the side. It illuminates when there’s a problem with the steering system.

What to do: 
If the car has hydraulic power steering, the light often means the power steering fluid reservoir is low, or there’s a faulty power steering pump

If your vehicle has electric power steering (EPS), get a mechanic to diagnose the issue

Now, let’s look at the other but equally important dashboard lights. 

9 Other Dashboard Indicator Lights 

Here’s what different indicator lights mean on your dash: 

1. Headlight High Beam Indicator

It commonly resembles an uppercase letter “D” with vertical lines projecting leftwards. This indicator light shows that your vehicle’s headlight high beams are switched on.

2. Low Fuel Indicator 

This dashboard indicator light appears as a small fuel pump icon. It means you’re running low on fuel and must stop at the nearest gas station. 

3. Turn Signal Indicator

The turn indicator appears as a set of blinking arrows. It shows that your vehicle’s right or left turn signal has been activated.

Note: If the indicator flashes faster than usual, check if a front or rear turn signal light bulb has burned out.

4. Seat Belt Indicator

This dashboard indicator light resembles a person wearing a seatbelt, indicating that one of the seatbelts in your vehicle isn’t secure. It’s also usually accompanied by a repetitive sound.

5. Fog Lights Indicator 

This symbol depicts a small light source surrounded by curved lines, showing that your fog lights are on.

6. Cruise Control Indicator

The indicator features an icon or symbol resembling a speedometer with an arrow pointing to a set speed. It indicates that the cruise control system has been activated to maintain a set speed without depressing the accelerator pedal.

7. Parking Brake Light

This brake light indicator features a symbol resembling the letter “P” or the word “BRAKE.” It indicates that the parking brake lever or pedal is engaged.

8. Service Due Indicator

This indicator light may display the words “SERVICE” or “MAINT REQD” on the car dashboard.

It’s a reminder that a specific service is due based on the vehicle’s mileage or time elapsed.

9. Washer Fluid Warning Light

This car dashboard light resembles a wiper blade with a stream of fluid spraying from it. Some vehicles may also use text such as “WASHER FLUID” or “WASHER” to indicate low fluid.

In addition to the basic warning and indicator lights, a modern car dashboard may show extra lights to indicate special features. 

Additional Feature Lights

If you own a modern car, it might come equipped with Advanced Drive-Assistance Systems (ADAS) — a collection of features that ensure better drivability. 

These systems use sensors, radar, cameras, and other technology to provide real-time car information and automate certain driving tasks.

Here are some of the ADAS indicator lights: 

Note: The car warning lights on your dash may differ slightly from the ones on our list. If unsure, consult your vehicle’s owner’s manual. Also, some dashboard lights will illuminate briefly when you turn on your vehicle. There’s nothing to worry about if they turn off within a few seconds.

Wrapping Up  

Whether it’s the Check Engine Light, low tire pressure warning, low oil pressure, or any other indicator, ignoring or not understanding these warnings can lead to more significant problems down the road (no pun intended!).

If you need help diagnosing these dash lights and addressing the underlying problem, AutoNation Mobile Service is here at your service!

Our expert mobile mechanics are available seven days a week to decode and fix dashboard warning lights right in your driveway. And with a 12-month/12,000-mile warranty on all repairs, you can trust us to do a reliable and efficient job. 

Contact us to book your service hours for dash light diagnosis.