[POLL] Do Americans Know Basic Car Warning Symbols?

warning lights


Cars and Americans go together like Thelma and Louise and their 1966 T-Bird or Steve McQueen and his 1968 Bullitt Mustang. Needless to say, cars are an integral part of American culture — but how well do Americans really understand the machines they rely on every day?

We polled 5,000 Americans to find out if they knew the meaning of a tire pressure warning light, a coolant temperature warning light, and an oil pressure warning light. We chose these warning signs because they are some of the most common — and the most important — warning lights in a car. Our poll revealed some eyebrow-raising stats: 

  • 73 percent of Americans don’t know what their oil pressure warning light means.
  • 40 percent of Americans risk engine failure because they don’t understand their coolant temperature warning light.
  • 30 percent of Americans unknowingly risk driving at an unsafe tire pressure.

We also asked Americans how long they waited to take their car to a mechanic after a warning light came on. The results — listed below — show Americans are costing themselves thousands of dollars by neglecting or misunderstanding basic car warning lights.


Three Car Warning Symbols You Should Know

car knowledge by age infographic


Americans' car knowledge is declining. Whether it’s because older generations aren’t teaching younger generations, or because cars are getting more complicated, this trend shows basic car maintenance could soon be left to the professionals, costing younger drivers thousands of dollars in simple repair costs. Americans' lack of interest in learning the ins and outs of their cars is reflected in a shortage of auto mechanics — a trend that has car manufacturers scrambling for qualified candidates.

Not only are Americans losing money to their lack of car know-how, they are also putting themselves and others at risk by neglecting these basic warning signs. Below is a breakdown of American drivers' ability to identify common automotive warning symbols.


Oil Pressure Warning Symbol

oil pressure graphic


Americans scored remarkably poor on this question. Most Americans believed the oil warning light meant their vehicle’s oil was low. In fact, the oil warning light signifies the vehicle’s oil pressure is low. There is a slight but important difference that can cost a significant amount of money if the underlying issue goes untreated. An oil warning light may come on even if the vehicle has a sufficient oil supply, so topping off the oil reservoir may not solve the issue. Underlying causes of low oil pressure include worn engine bearings, a malfunctioning oil pump, a malfunctioning oil pressure relief valve, aerated oil, and a clogged oil filter.


Coolant Warning Symbol

coolant graphic


Knowing the meaning of the coolant warning light proved to be easier than identifying the oil pressure warning light. Approximately 62 percent correctly diagnosed the meaning of this indicator, leaving almost half of Americans out of the loop.

The coolant warning light notifies the driver that the coolant temperature is higher than normal, meaning the engine is near overheating. Driving while the coolant warning light is on can lead to catastrophic vehicle failure. Having an understanding of this basic warning light can save you hundreds — if not thousands — of dollars, and lots of headaches in the long run.

Although older Americans were more likely than their younger counterparts to identify the warning light correctly, 55- to 64-year-olds scored noticeably higher than any other age demographic, including their 65 and older counterparts. Also, drivers aged 35 to 44 scored higher than drivers aged 45 to 54.


Tire Pressure Warning Symbol

tire graphic


Most Americans answered this correctly, but more than a quarter of Americans failed to diagnose the issue behind this basic warning symbol. Older generations scored higher, while only about 60 percent of 18-to-24-year-olds knew what the tire pressure warning light meant. This light is critical, as driving on a tire with low pressure can lead to a blowout, a potentially catastrophic incident.


How Quickly Do Americans Address Their Car Warning Signals?

  • Same day - 19%
  • Within a week - 34%
  • Within a month - 10%
  • Never - 11%
  • I’ll fix it myself - 23%

Most Americans claimed they would take their car into the shop to address the issue within one week. Many drivers aged 18-to-24 claimed they would fix the issue themselves. This might be surprising, seeing as drivers in this age bracket scored disproportionately worse on each survey than any other age demographic.


car damage graphic


If car maintenance seems like a burden, you are not alone. Americans today depend less on their own knowledge of cars to keep their rides road ready. Learning how to perform simple maintenance checks and familiarizing yourself with your vehicle’s owner’s manual can extend the life of your vehicle and keep you safe on the road.

Given the state of American car knowledge today, finding effective car insurance is more important than ever. Check out our comprehensive car insurance guide to find the best policies in your area.


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