Car Dashboard Lights and Their Meanings
In this article we are going to try and allay your fears somewhat and introduce you to some of the more common and important dashboard warning lights. Strap in because there are a lot of warning lights and they can vary by car model.
The Color System
Before we get to the symbols themselves we should mention a little color system to the lights that you may not be aware of, Now generally speaking if a dashboard light presents as red this is most urgent and may mean you need to get this issue looked at without delay.
If the symbol is illuminated in yellow or orange this is a warning and not quite as serious as red but still means you should get the issue checked out as soon as you can. Finally, green or blue illumination on a symbol means all is well and you don’t need to worry.
Common Dashboard Symbols
These are some of the more common dashboard lights you might encounter in your day to day life and often they can be some of the more concerning ones as well.
Check Engine Light
Starting with the scariest first we have the check engine light. As you might imagine this indicates a possible issue with the engine and is usually either an outline of an engine or the words “CHECK ENGINE.”
Anti-Lock Braking System
Presenting as the letters (ABS) usually in a circle that itself is in parenthesis, the ABS symbol indicates there may be an issue with your anti-lock brakes.
Presenting as a seated individual with a circle in front of their face this warning light may indicate an issue with your airbags. This is obviously something of great concern so should be looked at very quickly.
Oil Level Warning Light
Usually depicted by an oil can and (MIN) symbol the warning light is letting you know that sensors indicate the oil level in your car is low. This is not good as oil is needed to help the engine run smoothly. If this symbol pops up you may have an oil leak.
Oil Pressure Warning
This is a serious warning to watch out for if you see a red oil can image this may mean oil pressure issues. These can be very damaging to your engine so you should stop the car as soon as it is safe and get that checked out.
Battery Charge Warning
A red car battery symbol may be an indicator that your battery is not being recharged correctly as you drive. This can mean the battery may die and you will be left unable to drive further.
Coolant Temperature Warning Light
With two squiggly lines to indicate fluid and a thermometer this warning light may indicate that your engine's coolant is running at too high a temperature. If this pops up on the dash, find somewhere safe to pull over and stop the engine.
Tire Pressure Warning Light
Some symbols just don’t look like what they are warning about and the tire pressure warning is one such example. Looking like a horseshoe with ridges at the top of the curve with an exclamation symbol in the center. This warns you that your tire pressure is not right and may need to be checked.
Traction Control/ESP Light
Indicated by the rear end of a car and swerved lines, this symbol indicates issues with your traction control. This may not be an urgent matter but it may affect the handling of your vehicle so you should take a little extra care while driving.
Service Engine Soon
Very self explanatory and obvious this can mean a number of minor things that should be looked at with a service visit but are not immediate problems.
Low Washer Fluid
Depicted as a windscreen with a jet of water this light is to warn you that your windscreen washer fluid is low. Not a major issue but if you need to clean your screen while driving it could be a problem. A very easy fix.
Automatic Shift Lock Symbol
Presenting as a shoe inside a circle this warning light is letting you know that the brake pedal has not been pressed. This means that the car will not start and the shifter will not move out of park. You probably won't see this often but we all have little moments when we forget the simple things.
Warnings Regarding Engine and Emissions
This collection of symbols relate to problems in the engine so they are very important. If you have an engine issue it is something that will need attending to quickly to keep your vehicle driving down the road.
Reduced Engine Power
This one looks like an engine but one half is black while the other half is illuminated. This essentially means that an issue exists in the engine for which the vehicle's online computer has decreased engine power. This is to protect the engine until you can get the problem resolved.
Lambda Warning Light
A lesser known light, this one looks like a triangle in which there is an upside down uppercase Y or, for those who know Greek letters, the Lambda symbol. This symbol refers to an issue with the air-fuel mix or the oxygen sensors. You will find this in older model vehicles.
Low Coolant Indicator
This symbol looks like a tank with a small amount of liquid at the bottom. This makes sense as it warns about low coolant levels which can be a potential issue if you continue to drive. If this comes on you may be low on coolant and also have a leak which needs to be fixed.
Glow Plug Indicator
This is for diesel vehicles only and looks like the spiral filament of an older style lightbulb. It indicates there may be a problem with the glow plugs or their control system.
Fuel Filter Warning
This one looks like the drip system of a coffee pot which is apt as it includes a filter. If this symbol pops up you may need to empty the water trap in your fuel level.
Power Steering Level
This symbol looks like a tank which has (max & min) written on it. If this symbol appears on your dash you may be low on power steering fluid or there is an issue with the level sensor.
Electronic Throttle Control
If this symbol appears on your dash it could indicate an issue with the engine's electronic throttle body or the system.
Particle Filter Warning
This is a diesel specific light and may come on if the particle filter is full and either needs regeneration or replacement.
Low Fuel Level
Hopefully you should know this one unless you are very new to driving. This symbol may come on as a warning to let you know that your fuel is getting low and you need to visit a gas station very soon.
Catalytic Convertor Warning
Important to the emissions of your vehicle, this symbol may indicate a problem with your catalytic convertor or the control system running it. Your engine does not perform well if this element is not working.
Master Warning Light
This symbol does not usually pop up on its own; often you will see it along with another warning light. The other warning should point you in the direction of the issue as the Master Warning Light is just general in meaning.
Blinking Engine Light
This can often be an indication of a misfiring engine but a flashing engine will occur for any issues that are actively affecting the engine while in use.
Symbols and Warning Lights for the Drivetrain
The drivetrain includes a number of the elements of the vehicle but principally is key in transferring engine power to the rest of the vehicle such as the wheels. Problems in this system can cause the vehicle to not run correctly or at all.
Transmission Temp Warning
If the temperature in the transmission is too high you may see this warning light come on. Like the engine it has a cooling system but when this is not working correctly the transmission can overheat and cause damage to parts of the transmission.
This wrench symbol may indicate a problem in the powertrain or the drivetrain. It is not specific but a mechanic can use a diagnosing tool to determine the error warning related to this.
Parking Brake Light
This symbol indicates that the parking light is engaged but it can also be an indication of an issue in the parking brake system.
Differential Temperature Warning
This symbol coming on may indicate an issue with the vehicle's differential such as too high a temperature or an issue with the sensor. It is a simple light that reads R.Diff Temp.
Electronic Stability Program (ESP) or Brake Assist Program (BAS)
If this symbol comes up on the dashboard there may be an issue with one or both of these systems. As they deal with the vehicle drivability it may be wise to get this checked out quickly.
Automatic Gearbox Warning
This one looks a lot like the transmission temp warning but you will note that rather than a thermometer in the red circle it is an exclamation point. This may appear on your dash if there are issues with your automatic transmission or the system that controls it.
Brake Pad Warning
This is an important symbol as it can warn you that your brake pads are almost worn out. Driving on worn or already depleted brake pads can affect your ability to brake the car and also do severe damage.
This is a symbol that can indicate any number of brake issues so it definitely should not be ignored. If your brakes were to fail you at the wrong time you could be in a dangerous situation.
Service Vehicle Soon
A wrench over a car seems pretty obvious when you think about it. Basically this light is suggesting it is time for a routine service of the car. This is more preventative in nature as regular services will help your car to run smoothly and not develop major expensive issues.
These are three different lights that may appear depending on your model. 4WD means four-wheel drive is engaged, 4x2 means two-wheel drive is engaged and AWD means all-wheel drive is engaged.
It is so important to recognize the potential safety lights that may appear on your dashboard. These are ones that may pertain to the safety features of your vehicle and knowing if one is not working is very important.
Hazard Lights On
If you turned your hazard lights on then this symbol is good to see. However, if you turned them on by mistake and are driving down the highway you are sending the wrong message to other road users and this could result in an accident.
Door Ajar Symbol
Sometimes if you do not close the door hard enough it may not close all the way. This light will warn you of this. Leaning against an incorrectly closed vehicle door can cause it to fly open and this can lead to bad things happening very quickly.
Again sometimes we were checking under the hood and when we closed it, it didn’t latch correctly. If you see this warning light, slow down park as soon as you can and make sure it’s closed. You do not want that hood flying open at speed while driving.
Lane Departure Warning
This one is monitoring your safe driving and may appear if you start to change lanes without indication. This is not a safe practice as drivers in the lane behind you might not realize your intent if you do not signal.
Forward Collision Warning
This is activated if you are getting too close to the vehicle in front to warn you of a possible collision. We can get distracted but this will warn us of the danger.
This is a warning that relates to the airbags and stands for supplemental restraint system. If you have this warning light you need to get it checked as it could mean that the airbags might not deploy when needed.
You shouldn’t get to see this one because hopefully everyone in the car has their seatbelt on. If however someone is not then this warning will let you know.
Lighting Related Symbols
If you are driving even during the day it is important that you know what is happening with your lights but it is especially important after dark. In this section we look at some light related warning lights.
Headlight Range Control
We can control the level of our headlights for conditions after dark. This warning light will indicate an issue with the headlight range control.
Exterior Light Fault
We can’t always see the exterior lights' effects while driving so this light will let us know if one of them might be faulty. We should check this out quickly as we may not only be in danger but we could get pulled over by the police if certain lights are not working.
High Beam Light Indicator
We use high beams to see more clearly on very dark roads but when we have oncoming traffic we should dip them so we do not impair the view of other drivers. If our high beams are on and we don’t need them this light can tell us.
Turn Lights Warning
This is a very important warning as turn signals and headlights are important to safe driving. If this symbol appears on the dash there may be an issue with these lights that should be dealt with quickly for safety and legal reasons.
Other Warning Lights
This collection are warning lights that are not part of other major sections but are in some cases just as important.
Steering Lock Warning
This one may come on in the event that there is an issue with the steering lock or if the key is not recognized.
Brake Fluid Level
Brake fluid is very important to the braking procedure and if you have a leak and are low you might find the brakes weak or unable to perform their task. Do not ignore this warning as it can cause a serious accident if not attended to.
Low Electric Battery Charge
As we drive our cars the actions of the engine charge the vehicle's battery which in turn runs the electrics. This warning light might indicate the battery is old and can no longer hold a charge. You will very likely have to get a new battery.
Brake Lights Warning
The brake lights at the rear of our car tell the people behind us when we are slowing down so they can respond. This symbol will warn if those lights are not working correctly. If the person behind cannot see the brake lights engage they might crash into us if we have to stop suddenly.
There are a lot of dashboard warning lights out there and they can vary based on make and model. In this article we have given you a good start at some of the main warning lights but to be sure you should probably consult your car's owner's manual.
The manual should include a full list of all the warning lights and what they mean. If you do not have a manual see if you can buy one or alternatively you can likely research your vehicle's model and year online and find a list that way.
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