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What Are Those Warnings Lights on Your Car's Dashboard Telling You?

dashboard of car

Next time you hop in you car to drive to work, take a second to pay attention to all those lights that illuminate your dash. As long as they cycle off quickly, you don’t have to worry.

But, if they stay on – or if they come on while you are driving − pay attention and prepare to take action.

But which ones mean certain doom for your vehicle, and which ones are just giving you some information about your car? Knowing the difference just might save your car, and keep you from being stranded on the side of the road.

When a light comes on, first, use color as your guide. Red means take action as soon as it is safe. Amber or yellow means pay attention, and green is just to give you information about a system that is operating in your vehicle.

Here is a quick guide from Auto Insurance Center to some of the more common dashboard warning lights.

Low oil pressure

This light looks like a little red oil can with a handle and a drop of oil coming from the spout. The oil pressure light could mean that you have a low oil level, an engine malfunction or a bad sensor. Regardless of what causes it, it means "Stop!"

Driving even one more interstate exit with this light on often spells certain doom for your car. Without oil circulating properly, the parts can seize together and the engine may never start again.

Engine/coolant temperature

This light generally looks like a thermometer. It goes on when the coolant in the engine is hotter than it should be. Like low oil pressure, high engine temperature can cause major damage to your car — quickly. So, if this light comes on, pull over as soon as it is safe to do so and let the car cool off. Chances are good that the coolant level is just low, but beware.

Never open up the coolant reservoir while the engine is hot, or superheated steam may meet you in the face.

Check engine light

This ominous light looks sort of like an engine, with a little fan on the left side and a little flat air filter on the top. It can illuminate to signal a range of things, from a problem with your emissions equipment, to a loose gas cap. It can also mean something more serious, like a cylinder misfiring.

Keep driving only with caution, because you might be making the problem worse. However, a check engine light generally isn’t an emergency situation.

You still want to get it in to a shop as soon as possible so they can plug it in to their computer and see what fault code comes up. That is one of the nice thing about modern engines. With all the computers on board, they can often tell you what is wrong with them.

Charging system/Battery light

This looks like a car battery, and it means there is something wrong with the way your vehicle is recharging the battery. You want to pay attention because if the battery isn’t being recharged by the alternator, it will slowly discharge as the engine is running, and will eventually not have enough power for things like the spark plugs, and your engine will die.

Then it won’t have enough power to start the car again.

Antilock brake system

The antilock brake system is designed to keep your wheels from locking up when you slam on the brakes — helping you stop much quicker. When you slam on the brakes, it sends pulses of stopping power to your brakes, which means instead of skidding out of control, you come quickly to a stop.

If it is isn’t working, you are putting yourself and your passengers at risk in case you have to slam on your brakes. You will still be able to stop, but the ABS system will not be there to help.

Airbag

When you get into a large wreck, the airbags are there to stop you from slamming into the steering wheel. That is a good thing. However, if the light is on, it may be malfunctioning. In that case, it could mean that it won’t be there to save you when you need it, or perhaps just as bad, it may discharge at a dangerous time.

Tire pressure

This looks like a bulging tire with an exclamation point inside. If you have a system to monitor your tire pressure, then this light will tell you when you are running on dangerously low pressure.

Go air them up, but what you really want to watch out for is whether there is something, like a nail, sticking into the tire letting the air seep out to begin with.

Seat belt

Put it on. Seriously. These days cars have sensors in the seat to tell whether you are sitting there, and if you are, you should have a seatbelt on. These save lives, and you should be wearing yours. Go ahead. Do it.