So, you didn’t grow up with computerized digital dashboards. Most of us didn’t either! But it’s important to reteach yourself what those lights mean and to reinforce their importance with your family members. If not, you could find yourself stranded with some expensive repairs ahead. Or worse, you’ll put the safety of yourself and others at risk.
Our goal at Anderson's Autobody is always to help our community and customers avoid collisions or accidents. One way is to know how to read and respond to lit-up dashboard computers! After all, our vehicles are another node on the Internet. While your kids may care more about the AUX button to connect their iPhone’s Spotify playlist, it’s more important they fasten their seat belts and check tire pressure– stat!
Let’s find out more what each of these dashboard lights mean, which ones to pay attention to immediately (hint: flashing red!), and which ones can wait.
First, colors matter!
- Green or blue lights simply tell you that a system is on and operating.
- Orange/yellow warning lights mean your vehicle needs to be serviced or repaired soon. These warnings are less urgent.
- Red or flashing lights mean you should act now!
- Some red dashboard lights are safety warnings (like a seat belt reminder)
- Others are mechanical (like the engine overheating). Pull over as soon as possible and figure out what’s going on. Your vehicle will likely stop working or become damaged otherwise.
Second, most dealerships or privately sold used cars don’t provide hands-on demos.
Learning to read a new dashboard after selling your 1984 Ford Bronco may feel confusing at first. But seriously, while every vehicle is a little bit different, always remember:
- Colors matter!
- Your instruction manual! If you don't have one, read on.
Last, memorize the Big 9 Dashboard Lights.
1 – Engine light
The “check your engine” light appears as an engine icon telling you the car engine may need maintenance. Actually, it can represent many issues and requires a scan tool to read the code. That code tells a professional exactly what part of the engine is in distress. So, take the time to get an engine scan at your local mechanic shop or auto parts store. If you bring your car into Anderson’s, we perform pre and post-scans as part of our collision work. That way, we can see what invisible damage may have occurred in a crash – including sensors and yes, engines.
2 – Engine temperature warning light
This red indicator often looks like a thermometer. When the engine temperature light comes on, it indicates that your car’s engine is overheating. Pullover or turn off the vehicle as soon as possible and check the coolant level, fan, and radiator cap, and keep an eye out for leaks below the engine.
Be careful touching anything with your bare hands as some engine parts might be very hot. Keep protective gloves for this purpose in a safety kit along with other essentials in case you’re ever stranded.
3 – Battery charge warning light.
The battery charge warning light looks like a battery with a negative and positive symbol and indicates that your battery is either low (short on power) or not functioning properly. Check the battery and alternator to see what the issue is. Car battery testers and portable battery chargers are widely available at auto supply stores and online. Always store one or both of these items in your vehicle in case of a battery emergency. And learn how to jump-start your car and teach your kids or grandkids!
4 – Oil pressure warning light.
The oil pressure warning light looks like an old-fashioned oil can and indicates that your vehicle is losing oil pressure. That means lubrication on your vehicle may be low or lost completely. If not addressed immediately, it could severely damage your engine and lead to an accident.
5 – Brake warning light
If you see this symbol or simply the word “BRAKE” in red, then either you forgot to release the parking brake or there’s a problem with your braking system. Put simply, something is wrong with your brakes. Investigate immediately, as faulty brakes could make your car unsafe to drive.
6 – Tire pressure warning light
Also known as the Tire Pressure Monitoring System (TPMS) symbol, this image signals an issue with your tire pressure or the TPMS.
- If the TPMS symbol is solid, the pressure in one or more of your tires is too low or too high.
- If the TPMS symbol is flashing for 60-90 seconds when you start your vehicle and stays illuminated, something is wrong with your TPMS sensors – even if your tires are inflated properly.
Many gas stations have areas where you can adjust tire pressure and check levels. Look for a sign that says “Air” and buy a pressure gauge for less than $10 at almost any auto parts store, convenience store, or gas station. If you have a chronic problem, get your tires repaired or invest in new ones as yours might have a slow leak.
7 – Traction control malfunction warnings
While this light won’t affect your everyday driving, get it checked soon to make sure your vehicle will operate safely in bad road or weather conditions.
This light indicates that your traction control system might have a broken or damaged sensor or some other malfunction. In some cars, the same control module operates the ABS and the traction control system. Therefore, this dashboard light comes on when there are problems with your ABS (see #9).
8 – Traction control lights.
This light looks like a car slipping on a road and it means just that! You may be losing traction with the pavement as you drive. It can happen in snow, ice, and heavy rain so the first thing you do is slow down, stay aware of slick roads and drive very carefully to avoid losing control of the vehicle. Traction control is activated when one wheel is spinning faster than another. It automatically applies brakes to help the car regain traction. It’s a good thing – an important safety feature especially important in North Idaho winters!
9 – Anti-lock brakes warning light.
This indicator appears with the letters ABS which stands for Anti-lock Braking System. When you brake hard, like on slick roads, the ABS pulses the brakes to prevent your wheels from locking up. If the ABS warning light stays on, it means that something is wrong with the system. Since this is such an important safety feature, it’s important to have a mechanic diagnose the issue as soon as possible.
This light may light up when you first turn your car on, but it should go away.
Don’t throw a rod – or a fit!
Seeing a warning light is never fun and rarely convenient. But ignoring signals from digital dashboards increases the risk of auto collisions and damage. Those signs are there to keep you, your passengers, and other drivers safe. They’re also there to prevent serious damage – like throwing a rod (complete failure of the engine’s piston rod or related fasteners) from low oil, excessive heating, or overrevving.
Still, accidents do happen. We’re always here to help and answer any questions about preventative maintenance.