The ultimate guide to car warning lights

You'll want to pull over for this one

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Alani Asis

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Ross Martin

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What do your car's warning lights mean?

You’re driving along, minding your own business and suddenly...the check engine light goes on. Car warning lights can cause confusion for even the most seasoned drivers. Unfortunately, many of us ignore these signals. A survey conducted by OnePoll and Hyundai found that drivers often wait up to nine days after a warning light goes off before getting their car serviced[1]. This leaves drivers susceptible to further damage, a car breakdown or even an accident for those nine days.

If you're not fluent in car warning light jargon — don't fret. We'll walk you through understanding and responding to each warning light quickly and appropriately. By taking action right away, you'll keep yourself and your passengers safe on the road.

What are the common car warning lights?

Dashboard warning lights are built into your car's onboard diagnostic system (OBD), which alerts you if your vehicle has any issues that need attention. Remember that every car is different. Take a look at your vehicle's manual to determine what each symbol means for your specific car. There are eight standard indicator light signals to look out for on your car dashboard:

  • checkengine
    Engine warning light

    When the engine symbol or the words "CHECK ENGINE" illuminates your dashboard, there's an issue with your engine. The engine warning light won't specify what's wrong, so you must take your vehicle to a mechanic for inspection.

  • battery
    Battery warning light

    Keep your eyes peeled for this battery-shaped light, indicating a problem with your vehicle's charging system or battery charge warning. If this light turns on, inspect the battery, alternator and serpentine belt for any damage or loose connections.

  • oil light
    Oil pressure warning light

    If you spot an oil can or a lamp-shaped light, your vehicle's engine oil pressure is low, which can cause significant damage to your engine. If it’s an issue with your oil level, it may just appear as the check engine light.

  • brake
    Brake warning light

    See an exclamation mark within a circle on your dashboard? This is usually a sign that your brake pads are worn past a safe level, you have low brake fluids, or there's an issue with your brake pedal or brake system.

  • ABS
    Anti-lock braking system

    The letters "ABS" enclosed within a circle indicate a potential problem with your vehicle's anti-lock braking system, which prevents your wheels from locking up when you brake. If you suspect an issue with your anti-lock brakes, you should definitely get your car looked at.

  • tire pressure
    Tire pressure warning light

    Keep an eye out for this exclamation mark within a U-shape as this is part of your tire pressure monitoring system, as it alerts you when your tire pressure is too low. Proper tire pressure levels are crucial for your vehicle's safety and performance.

  • coolant
    Coolant warning light

    This thermostat-shaped warning light indicates an issue with the vehicle's cooling system or cooling level. Resolving coolant issues is essential, as driving with an unsafe coolant level can lead to severe engine damage.

  • airbag
    Airbag warning light

    The seated person sitting in front of a deployed airbag is the airbag indicator warning light which indicates a problem with your vehicle's airbag system.

  • power steering
    Power steering warning light

    If you see a steering wheel with an exclamation point illuminated, it can be there’s an issue with the power steering system. This can mean you will have to put a lot more effort in to turn the wheel and make the car move.

  • glow plug
    Glow plug warning

    This one’s just for you diesel vehicle drivers. If you see two connected loops, there’s an issue with the glow plug which is used in diesel engines to aid the engine starting in cold weather. Don’t attempt to start the vehicle until this light is gone.

  • esp
    ESP warning light

    If you see the letters ESP with a circle around it or a car with skid marks behind, this is to alert the drive to a problem with the electrical system. The electronic stability program helps improve that vehicle’s stability control and reduce loss of traction.

  • lane departure
    Lane departure warning

    Many cars are not equipped with a warning system for when your car drifts out of its lane. In addition to jerking the wheel to alert you, a light will usually appear with a car between two parallel lines.

  • Screenshot 2023-06-21 at 11.52.21 AM
    Check emissions light

    In many vehicles, this is the same indicator as the check engine light, an outline of an engine. If you see this light it can mean a fault in your emissions system, mass airflow sensor problem or blocked diesel particulate filter.

  • seat belt warning
    Seat belt reminder

    This light showing a person with a seatbelt is usually accompanied by an auditory warning. If weight is detected in a seat without a seat belt buckled it will alert you to fix the issue.

What to do when a warning light comes on

If a warning light turns on, staying calm and acting promptly is essential. If you can safely pull over, do so, and observe the warning light and your surroundings. Is the warning light blinking? This indicates that the problem is urgent. Listen for any unusual sounds or smells from the car to help you diagnose the issue and get back on the road. 

Step 1: Assess the situation 

Keep in mind that every situation is unique, and the severity of the problem varies based on the warning light that comes on. If your car is driving normally, it may be okay to address the issue later. For instance, an oil pressure warning lamp may indicate your vehicle is due for an oil change, and you should do so at your earliest convenience. 

Some warning lights are easy fixes, like forgetting to buckle your seat belt, shutting a door, replacing a gas cap, or leaving the parking brake engaged. However, other problems are more complex and require immediate attention. In these cases, refrain from operating your vehicle until you resolve the issue. If you're driving, find a safe spot to pull over and turn off the engine to prevent further damage.

Step 2: Check the owner’s manual 

Your owner's manual provides information specific to your vehicle's make and model about what you should do if your warning lights illuminate. It explains the meaning of each light, its severity based on its display on the dashboard, and the appropriate action to take. 

You can typically find your owner's manual in the glove compartment. You can also get a digital copy on the manufacturer's website. Reviewing this information before issues arise can help you avoid unsafe driving conditions and take appropriate action when necessary. 

Part 3: Check the severity of the warning light

The warning light's severity depends on how the symbol appears. Take note of the light's color and whether it's flashing or steady. 

  • Color: Red lights typically represent significant malfunctions that require immediate attention, so consider pulling over if you see one while driving. On the other hand, amber warning lights indicate less critical issues. However, if left unresolved could cause further damage and wear to your vehicle. 
  • Flashing/Still lights: A flashing warning light, instead of a still-illuminated light, signals an urgent problem and requires immediate action. For example, a blinking traction control light (symbolized by a car with tire skids following behind) could mean that your traction control system detected a wheel slip or loss of traction.

Part 4: Take action

Once you've determined the severity of your car warning light, take action to ensure the safety of yourself and others.  If you see a red or flashing light, pull over if it's safe. Different warning lights require other actions; for example, your coolant warning light illuminates red if your engine is overheating. In this case, pull over and shut off your engine for at least 20 minutes. 

Less urgent warning lights, such as still warning amber lights, indicate your vehicle requires maintenance. Many vehicles have lights that remind you to fill up on low fuel, adjust your brake fluid level, add transmission fluid, add washer fluid, change your oil or inflate your tire. Take the time to remedy these issues as soon as possible. These warning light symbols are your reminder that drive a car that needs servicing is dangerous to you and other drivers. 

How to prevent car warning lights

Being aware of your car's maintenance needs, as outlined in your vehicle's manual, is vital in preventing unexpected car warning lights. Regular vehicle maintenance includes servicing, checking fluid levels and ensuring proper tire pressure levels. 

If your car is making unusual sounds or smells, driving roughly, accelerating poorly, or emitting smoke, it's best to have the issue inspected by a professional before continuing to operate it.

The bottom line

Understanding your vehicle’s warning light meanings and taking timely action when you notice them is crucial for your safety and your car’s longevity. If necessarily, seek professional help and avoid DIY repairs if you lack experience, as you may cause further damage to your vehicle. 

  1. Average person drives around for 9 days with ‘Check Engine’ light on before getting car serviced! StudyFinds