The lights on your dashboard are more than just an annoyance; they are a sign that your car needs attention—and some dashboard warning lights need attention NOW. We’ve put together a list of the most common dashboard warning lights and what you should do about them (and when!).
Important note: When a warning light comes on, note whether the light is yellow or red. If the warning light is red, the problem is urgent and you should not drive your car. Call your mechanic immediately. A yellow car warning light indicates that the car needs to be checked, but you can still drive the car. Don’t wait too long to get your car into the mechanic though, though, as a yellow light left unchecked can lead to permanent damage, a higher repair bill, and you being stranded.
What: A small light in the shape of a battery, often with a small positive and negative sign.
What the light means: Your battery alert light is letting you know there is an issue with your car’s charging system and that your voltage level is low.
What you should do: Make sure your battery connectors and cables are correct and tight. Contact your mechanic to see if you can get an appointment soon; your car is going to break down if the battery cannot recharge.
What: A brake light may say ‘BRAKE’ or can be a circle with an exclamation point in the middle. Some cars have more than one brake light.
What the light means: A brake light can come on for a few different reasons, but usually it indicates that there is a problem with the braking system.
What you should do: Before you panic, make sure your parking brake is not on. If your parking brake is not the problem, make an appointment immediately to get your brakes checked. Don’t wait! Worn or failing brakes are a safety hazard that can lead to a serious accident.
Check Engine light
What: The check engine light is in the shape of irregular rectangle.
What the light means: The check engine light comes on when your car has an issue that throws a code in your car’s computer system. There are a number of reasons for this; the reason can be found out when hooked up to a computer by your mechanic.
What you should do: Schedule an appointment to find out what the reason is for the Check Engine light. Your mechanic can tell you what the reason is, and if the repair is need immediately.
Coolant temperature warning light
What: The coolant temperature warning light looks like a thermometer with a round bottom, often with squiggly lines that look like waves.
What the light means: Your engine is overheating, and needs attention to prevent engine failure.
What you should do: Pull over to the side of the road right away. DO NOT unscrew your radiator cap. If your engine is hot, the fluid could boil up and injure you. Once your car has cooled, check your antifreeze level and add water or radiator fluid to the radiator if needed. If the engine happens repeatedly, your car may have a radiator leak or have another problem that makes your car overheat. Schedule an appointment with your mechanic as soon as possible.
What: The oil pressure warning light (or low pressure warning light) looks like an oil can, often with a drop of oil coming out.
What the light means: This light means that your car has a low oil level, or low or no oil pressure.
What you should do: Check your oil level as soon as you can with a paper towel. If the problem was a low oil level, the warning light should go off eventually. If your car oil level is normal, your car may be running with minimal oil pressure. Do not drive your car with the oil pressure light on, especially not for long trips. This can damage your engine. Call your mechanic immediately.
What: The TPMS light has the letters ‘TPMS’ which stands for tire pressure monitoring system.
What the light means: Your tire pressure monitoring system has sensors in the tires which alert you when your tires are very low and need air.
What you should do: Fill up your tires with air immediately. Your TPMS warning light comes on when your tires are 20% (sometimes more than that) below pressure. By that time, your tire pressure is dangerously low—and dangerous to drive on. If your TPMS light comes on regularly, schedule an appointment with your mechanic to see if your tire has a leak that needs to be fixed.
What: The transmission temperature light usually looks like a gear with a thermometer in the middle.
What the light means: If your transmission temperature comes on, your transmission is overheating, which can lead to transmission failure if you continue on for an extended period of time.
What you should do: Check your transmission fluid as soon as possible. Driving with an overheating transmission is most likely going to lead to total transmission failure (and leave you stranded). Schedule an appointment as soon as possible to get the problem diagnosed.