If something goes wrong with your car, there are typically telltale signs. An odd sound. A weird smell. A noticeable change in engine behavior. Or some other out-of-the-ordinary action. Fortunately, most changes are noted by your car’s computer and rendered as a dashboard symbol. Such symbols, however, aren’t always easily interpreted. Therefore, we’ll identify the main ones to help make sense of dashboard warning lights.
Explaining Dashboard Warning Lights
How many dashboard warning lights are there? There are 18 main ones, according to J.D. Power. We’ve heard reports claiming up to 64, depending on the vehicle. Always consult your owner’s manual for an explanation of what each symbol represents, then respond accordingly. We’ll look at 12 of the most common lights and what they represent.
Check Engine Light
The check engine light can be triggered by a variety of issues, ranging from something as simple as a loose gas cap to more serious problems such as a faulty oxygen sensor or catalytic converter. Usually, the light is solid. However, if it is blinking, then pull over at once. Do not drive the car or you risk engine damage.
When the battery light is illuminated on the dashboard, it typically means that the vehicle’s charging system is not functioning properly, and the battery is not being charged as it should. This can be caused by a variety of issues, including a faulty alternator, loose or corroded battery cables, or a broken serpentine belt.
Oil Pressure Light
When the oil pressure light is illuminated on the dashboard, it means that the oil pressure in the engine has dropped below a safe level. This can be caused by a variety of issues, including low oil levels, a failing oil pump, or a clogged oil filter. Oil pressure is important because it helps lubricate the engine’s moving parts, reducing friction and wear. If the oil pressure drops too low, it can cause damage to the engine and potentially result in complete engine failure.
Brake System Light
When the brake system warning light is illuminated on the dashboard, it typically means that there is an issue with the vehicle’s braking system. The exact cause of the issue can vary, but some common reasons for the brake warning light to come on include low brake fluid levels, worn brake pads, a malfunctioning brake master cylinder, or a problem with the brake system’s hydraulic pressure. Adding brake fluid may resolve the problem, otherwise, a more comprehensive response is warranted.
ABS Light (Anti-lock Brake System)
The ABS warning light can be activated by a range of problems, including a malfunctioning wheel speed sensor, a failing ABS pump or module, or a problem with the ABS’s electrical connections. It’s important to address the issue as soon as possible, as a faulty ABS can potentially compromise the vehicle’s ability to brake effectively and could lead to a loss of control.
When the airbag warning light is illuminated, it typically means that there is an issue with the vehicle’s airbag system. The airbag warning light can be triggered by a variety of issues, including a faulty airbag sensor, a malfunctioning airbag control module, or a problem with the electrical connections to the airbag system. It’s important to address the issue as soon as possible, as a faulty airbag system can potentially compromise occupant safety in the event of a collision.
Tire Pressure Monitoring System (TPMS) Light
The TPMS warning light can be triggered by a variety of issues, including changes in temperature, punctures, leaks, or other damage to the tires. If the light comes on, it’s important to check the tire pressures as soon as possible and adjust them to the proper level. The recommended tire pressure for the vehicle can typically be found in the owner’s manual or on the driver’s side door jamb. Do not inflate the tires to the level listed on the sidewall.
Coolant Temperature Warning Light
When the coolant temperature warning light is illuminated, it usually means that the engine is overheating or is at risk of overheating. The coolant system is responsible for regulating the engine’s temperature by circulating coolant through the engine block and radiator. If the coolant temperature warning light comes on, it’s important to immediately address the issue as an overheating engine can cause serious damage and potentially lead to engine failure.
Power Steering Light
There isn’t typically a “power steering” warning light on the dashboard, but some vehicles may have a warning light that indicates an issue with the power steering system. If such a warning light is illuminated, it normally means that there is a problem with the power steering system. The power steering system uses hydraulic or electric power to assist the driver in turning the steering wheel. A problem with the power steering system can cause difficulty in steering or the loss of power assist.
Transmission Temperature Warning Light
A Transmission Temperature Warning Light (TTWL) illuminates when the transmission temperature in an automatic transmission vehicle gets too high. Notably, automatic transmissions use fluid to cool and lubricate the internal components, and if the fluid temperature rises too high, it can cause damage to the transmission. Thus, the TTWL transmission temperature warning light is designed to alert the driver when the transmission fluid temperature exceeds a safe level. Some of the causes include towing heavy loads, driving in hot weather, or a malfunctioning transmission cooler or cooling system. Driving with the warning light on can cause further damage to the transmission, therefore it’s critical to address the issue as quickly as possible.
Engine Oil Level Warning Light
The Engine Oil Level Warning Light illuminates when the vehicle’s engine oil level is too low. If the oil level is too low, it can cause significant damage to the engine. Most modern vehicles have an oil level sensor that detects the oil level in the oil pan and sends a signal to the Engine Control Unit (ECU) or instrument cluster. If the oil level drops below a certain level, the ECU or instrument cluster will illuminate the engine oil level warning light on the dashboard. If this warning light suddenly comes on, pull over immediately and check the oil level. Add, if necessary.
Gasoline Light / Fuel Warning Light
When the fuel level drops below a certain level, the fuel warning light will illuminate on the dashboard to alert the driver that it’s time to refuel. Not only can running out of fuel leave you stranded but it may result in damage to the fuel system.
Additional Warning Lights
Not all symbols are designed to warn about a problem with the car. For instance, the Lane Departure Warning Light alerts the driver when the car is veering out of its lane onto oncoming or parallel traffic. In addition, the Fog Lamp Indicator Lamp illuminates only when those lights are on. Turn them off once visibility improves.
All in all, dashboard warning lights are designed to alert drivers to potential problems. If you aren’t sure what a symbol represents, an OBD-II reader is useful for identifying a problem before you seek assistance.
Hawley, Dustin (Dec. 16, 2022). Car Dashboard Warning Lights Explained. J.D. Power.
(2022, February 25). What All the Symbols on Your Car’s Dashboard Mean. Virginia Tire & Auto.
Lampe, B. (2021, February 23). What Does a Check Engine Light Flashing Mean? NAPA Know How.
Windle, L. (2022, September 28). What does the fog light symbol look like and when should you use them? The US Sun.
Harvesty, Gary (n.d.). Getting Started Guide: OBD-II Codes. Kelley Blue Book.
See Also — Car Won’t Start: Basic Diagnostic Tests
Photo by Erik Mclean via Pexels.