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What Do All Those Dashboard Lights Mean, Anyway?

What Do All Those Dashboard Lights Mean, Anyway?


Did you know, that there could be five or more dozen different lights on your dashboard that could start blinking or turning on at any one time? They vary anywhere from simple things like letting you know that your lights are on, to "oh my god, stop the car now or you're going to break it". In many modern cars, some of these otherwise cryptic icons have been replaced by text on a digital screen. Either way, it's always a good idea then to have an instinctive knowledge of what all your dashboard lights really mean, and what your car is trying to inform you of. Does it need something urgent, or is it trying to tell you that something's amiss? However, with nearly 500 unique symbols and indicators across the countless makes and models of cars out there, where do we even begin?

Mind The Colours...

First and foremost, if you see a dashboard light pop-up in your view, don't panic. The next thing to do is assess the colour of the lights, and don't mind the actual iconography just yet if you don't know what it means. The colours by themselves alert you to the potential severity of the problem at hand, and is standardised in most cars...

Red - If the light is red, and especially if it's blinking repeatedly, this usually indicates that something is very gravely wrong with your car. If you're driving, it would be best to pull over safely. It can mean that there is a component failure, or if there's a major safety hazard to you. For example, it might try to tell you that you're running low on fuel, if the doors are open, or if it's overheating.

Orange or Yellow - This is less of an emergency than red, but orange or yellow coloured lights often indicate that something requires servicing. It might not be an immediate issue, but should be inspected as soon as possible, nonetheless. Some examples include when the car's traction control is engaged, the battery might be running low, or if you've missed your car's maintenance schedule.

Green or Blue - When you see a green or blue light on your dashboard, you can breathe a sigh of relief. Generally, lights in this shade are made to inform you that a certain function is working properly, or if a component is turned on. For example, when you have the lights and high beams on, or if the indicators are flashing.

The Most Common Dashboard Lights

Now that we got that out of the way, it's time to break down what some of the most common lights that'll glow from the dashboard mean...

Check Engine Light - Either shaped more or less like an engine or if there's a bar of text, it can be lit up in red or orange depending on the car. You should be aware that a part of the engine might not be working properly, such as a problem in the emissions control. It might be more serious in some cases, alerting you that there is a possible engine failure.

Oil Pressure Warning - Your engine needs a lot of oil to stay lubricated. Without it, complete engine failure can be expected. When this light comes on - shaped like a canister or magic lamp - it tells you that the oil pressure is low. Usually, this can be attributed to low oil levels, telling of an oil leak.

Coolant Temperature Warning - Or, it's known as the 'engine temperature' warning, appearing with a thermometer symbol. In any case, this means that your engine is running hotter than its expected limits. You should pull over, and let the engine cool down sufficiently before checking the coolant level.

Brake Light - Usually shown as a large red exclamation mark, the brake light can turn on for any number of reasons. For the most part, it tells you that your parking (hand) brake is active. Other than that, it might be indicative of a fault within the overall braking system, such as low brake fluids, or if the car's ABS (anti-lock braking system) is defective. Some cars have a separate light for ABS.

Tyre Pressure Warning - Another exclamation mark, but usually in yellow, and placed inside of what seems like a flat tyre. It speaks for itself, as it lets you know that your tyre pressure is underinflated by at least or around 25%. If you see this one lit, then pull over and check each tyre to make sure they're not running low on air. If so, pump it up before moving on.

Battery Light - This indicator will show up as a battery, with a plus and minus symbol on either end. When this lights up, you should be aware that your car's charging system isn't working right. It may be that your car's battery is running low on its charge and needs a new one. Or, it could be more serious, such as a problem with the wiring, charging cycle, the alternator, and so on.

Low Fuel - Okay, this is quite self-explanatory. If you see what looks like a fuel pump, then you're low on fuel. It usually comes on when there's a bare minimum amount of fuel left in your car, just more than enough to get you to the nearest fuel station.

Traction Control Warning - This is something you won't see on all cars. The icon looks like the back of a car, with squiggly lines along the tyre tracks. This here should tell you that your car's traction control system is kicking in, always a sign that you're losing grip. You'll see this a lot if you're driving on snow or ice. If the light is permanently on, then your traction control might be turned off.

Door/Bonnet/Boot Light - If you can see what appears like a diagram of your car, but with its doors, boot, or bonnet left open, then something on your car is left open or hasn't been closed properly. There's nothing wrong with the car, but it's obviously dangerous to keep driving with your door not being properly shut, or if the bonnet lid suddenly pops up and blocks your entire view.

Airbag Indicator - If you see the side-view of a person and what looks like a large bubble in front of them, this is the airbag warning light. Usually, this will come on if the car senses something wrong with the airbag system, as it might not deploy in the event of an accident.

Seatbelt Indicato - Another quite obvious symbol, as you'll see a person light up with their seat belt strapped on. This is a reminder that you're not wearing your seatbelt, or that it might not be buckled correctly.