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Car Dashboard Lights & Meanings

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Tyler is an ASE certified Mechanic with over 10 years experience and a long time car enthusiast living and working in Central Texas.

Dashboard Warning Lights & What They Mean

So when you turn the key and start your vehicle, your dashboard lights up like a Christmas tree for a few seconds as an array of warning lamps come on. One by one, they all go out again -- this is a normal feature as the lamps do a “bulb check” to ensure they’re working like they’re supposed to.


But what do they all mean? Let’s go through the most common dashboard warning lights one by one.


car-dashboard-lights-meanings

Oil Pressure Light

Severity: Urgent

That’s the one that looks like an old-fashioned oil can with a drop of oil dripping from its spout. An illuminated oil pressure light means that the engine’s oil pump isn’t doing its job, your engine is low on motor oil, or something is obstructing oil flow and preventing the system from pressurizing properly. You’ll want to pull over right away, check your oil level and figure out what’s going on here, because low oil pressure and poor lubrication can wreck an engine pretty quickly.


Tire Pressure Warning Light

Severity: High Priority

This is the one that looks like a cross-section of a tire with an exclamation point in the middle. Your tire pressure monitoring system has a wireless sensor on each wheel that monitors the wheel’s rotational speed. As a tire deflates, its diameter changes and that wheel will rotate faster than the others, causing the sensor to inform a processor and illuminate the TPMS light. You’ll then need to check your tire pressure, as even a slightly low tire can affect handling, braking and fuel economy. PRO TIP: the TPMS won’t tell you which tire is low, so you’ll need to check all of them; also, the sending units on each wheel can fail and cause a false alert. Usually you should have the sending units checked or replaced when it’s time for new tires.


Bulb Failure Warning Light

Severity: Low Priority

Not all makes/models have this feature; this warning is on newer vehicles that I myself had to look up the first time I came across this warning. The bulb failure light icon is a little light bulb with an exclamation point. It’s telling you that there’s a bulb somewhere on the vehicle (marker lights, running lights, etc) that’s failed and needs to be replaced. From there, you can turn the vehicle’s ignition key to the Accessory setting and do a walk-around inspection to determine which bulb is at fault. PRO TIP: it won’t be a turn signal bulb, because a failed turn signal bulb will result in the signals flashing at double speed when you use the blinkers.


car-dashboard-lights-meanings

Engine Temperature Warning

Severity: Urgent

This one looks like a thermometer sitting in the water. It means that your engine is overheating past normal operating temperature due to low coolant (aka antifreeze), a failing water pump or several other possible reasons. Again, overheating can quickly damage an engine so you’ll want to address this fast. PRO TIP: remember that the cooling system is pressurized and you should never, ever open the radiator cap when the engine is hot.

Traction Control Light

Severity: Medium Priority

This is the one that looks like a car with squiggly skid marks behind it. Your car has a suite of sensors that monitor wheel speed and can detect a wheel spinning faster than the others as you go into a skid. A processor will then automatically apply the brakes or cut engine power to compensate and prevent a skid. Sometimes the traction control light will come on just momentarily in wet or slippery conditions to let you know the system is doing its job.

Anti Lock Braking System

Severity: Medium Priority

Antilock brakes have been around since the 50s when they were developed for aircraft. It’s part of the system mentioned above, monitoring wheel speed except for ABS it senses when a wheel is turning slower than the others and is on the verge of locking up and going into a skid. It then proportions braking force via valves and pumps in the brake system, preventing lockup on that wheel. An illuminated ABS light means that something is failing in the ABS system.

Traction Control Malfunction

Severity: Medium Priority

The traction control system is tied in with the ABS and vehicle stability systems; an illuminated malfunction light means that a sensor or other component of the system isn’t working properly.

Check Engine Light

Severity: Medium Priority

Since the early 90s, every part of an engine’s functions has been controlled by a processor. The processor is informed by sensors that monitor what’s going on; when a sensor sends the processor a reading that’s outside of norms, the processor stores that reading as a “trouble code” and lights up the Check Engine Light (CEL). From there, a technician can hook up a code reader to a connector (usually under the dashboard) and quickly determine the problem(s). An illuminated CEL can mean anything from a loose gas cap to major engine problems.

car-dashboard-lights-meanings

Battery Alert

Severity: High Priority

That’s the one that looks like a little battery, with its Plus and Minus terminals. It means that something in your electrical system is causing the normal voltages to drop; it could be something as simple as a loose battery cable or as serious as a failing alternator. If you keep going with the Battery Alert illuminated, you might notice your lights and dashboard lamps dimming; eventually, your vehicle might just stall completely. PRO TIP: most auto parts stores will test a battery or alternator free of charge.

Low Fuel Indicator

Severity: Urgent

Everyone knows this one, it’s the little gas pump lamp (usually on your fuel gauge). It means you’re down to a gallon or two of gas, and you’d better find a gas station soon. It’s not a good idea to run on an extremely low fuel tank anyway, since the electric fuel pump actually relies on gasoline to provide a little bit of lubrication.

Automatic Shift Lock

Severity: High Priority (you aren’t going anywhere without it)

Since the 90s, vehicles have been designed so that the transmission can only go in gear when the driver has a foot on the brakes. This prevents premature wear on the transmission and drivetrain; if you see the Automatic Shift Lock illuminated, your vehicle will be locked in Park or Neutral until you engage the brakes.

Seat Belt Reminder

Severity: High Priority

This one is likely to be accompanied by a chime or buzzer. It’s simple -- buckle up! It’s the law and it’s your best defense behind the wheel.

car-dashboard-lights-meanings

Airbag Indicator

Severity: Medium Priority

An illuminated airbag indicator means there’s a problem of some sort with the airbag system and its sensors. You really need that airbag to deploy in case of a collision; it’s as big a part of your safety as your seatbelts, so get that problem checked out if you see the indicator turned on.

Security Light

Severity: Low Priority

Most newer vehicles have a security/anti-theft system, even if it’s just something as simple as flashing headlights and a honking horn. A security light on the dash means something in the system isn’t working properly.

Fog Lamp Indicator

Severity: Low Priority

This one’s just a reminder that the fog lamps are on. Fog lamps should only be used when visibility is really poor -- less than 100 yards -- and shouldn’t be used during normal conditions.

Washer Fluid Indicator

Severity: Low Priority

Here’s a pretty simple one; like the name suggests, it means that your washer fluid is low. When you get a chance, you’ll want to locate the washer fluid reservoir under the hood and top it off. Like with your gas tank, you shouldn’t let it run dry, as running the washer fluid pump when there’s nothing for it to pump can damage it.

How To Clear Car Warning Lights

Solving an indicator-light issue depends to a certain extent on the vehicle you’re driving and its age. It’s pretty simple to get a code reader and connect it to access any Check Engine trouble codes - if you don’t feel up to it, you can drop by your local big-box auto parts store and the guys there can do a code scan for free.

The code reader can also be used to clear any trouble codes and turn off the CEL; on some older vehicles (pre-2010), disconnecting the battery for a minute or two will also clear trouble codes, as long as you don’t mind losing all your radio presets.

Remember, for your Check Engine light, it’s a simple matter to just use a code scanner yourself and determine what’s going on and which codes have been stored in your vehicle’s main computer. If you don’t feel up to that yourself, most major big-box auto parts stores will perform a code scan free of charge, right in the parking lot.

The tricky part about trouble codes, however, is being able to interpret them; sometimes a single problem can cause a series of trouble codes to be stored and it may take a trained technician to really be able to “read the tea leaves” and get to the bottom of why the problem is happening.

This list isn’t reflective of every vehicle; some have other dashboard indicators, while others don’t have all of these. Still, it’s a typical roundup of what you’ll find on your car’s dashboard. And once again, don’t be alarmed if one of these lights up for a few seconds at startup and then goes off again; that’s perfectly normal and how it was designed.

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This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2021 Tyler Gray

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