We’ve all experienced it. You’re driving down the road when you notice a new light on the dashboard that wasn’t there a minute ago.
It’s caught your attention, but one problem remains: You don’t know what that glowing icon means.
How to Identify Dashboard Warning Lights
The modern automobile is an amazingly complex machine – relying on dozens of systems that must work together every time you get behind the wheel. When one of those systems encounters a problem, your car’s internal computer is programmed to notify you with a corresponding error message.
In general, the colors of these lights can help you identify the severity of the problem. Green or blue lights often let you know that a system is active – like your car’s headlights or a high-tech safety feature. Orange and yellow lights indicate a more significant problem, indicating your car may need to be serviced or repaired soon. And red lights often draw your attention to the most urgent errors.
When a dashboard light appears, you can always find the meaning of the symbol in your car’s owner’s manual. But to help save you some time, here are 12 of the most important dashboard lights you should familiarize yourself with.
What it looks like: An image of an old-fashioned oil can.
What it means: This light comes on when your car detects low engine oil pressure. This low oil pressure can be caused by several factors. The best-case scenario is that your engine is low on oil, so start by pulling over and checking your car’s engine oil dipstick – if you have one. Many newer cars no longer come with a dipstick and instead have an internal “check oil” program. This usually involves parking your car in a level spot while the program checks your engine’s oil level. If your oil level is ok, then something more serious is wrong – like an oil leak or broken oil pump.
When the oil light is on, you can assume that the internal parts of your car’s engine are not being properly lubricated. So avoid driving with this light on. Doing so can lead to significant engine damage and major repair bills.
What it looks like: This symbol was designed to look like the cross-section of a tire, which looks like an exclamation point between two parentheses – (!).
What it means: The tire pressure light is triggered by your car’s tire pressure monitoring system (TPMS) to let you know that a tire is low on air. Newer vehicles may tell you the exact pressure of each tire, but for older systems, you’ll need to check them the old-fashioned way using a tire pressure gauge. A warning light only goes off once the tire pressure reaches a certain threshold (typically about 25% below the recommended pressure). That means it could signify a flat tire or low tire pressure caused by cold weather. When you see this light, air up your tires as soon as possible.
What it looks like: A thermometer dipped in water.
What it means: This warning light appears if your car’s engine overheats. When your coolant temperature climbs too high, it often means something is wrong with one of the cooling system components. This can point to an issue with your fan, radiator, thermostat, water pumps, hoses and coolant.
If you see this light, find a safe place to pull over. Driving your car when it’s overheating can cause serious – and sometimes permanent – damage to your engine, so it’s best to stop driving as soon as possible. If you need a tow, Emergency Roadside Service coverage1 from Erie Insurance can help get your vehicle to the nearest service garage. The service is available 24/7 and can be added to your auto insurance policy for about $5 per vehicle per year.2To learn more, contact us today.
What it looks like: An outline of a car with two squiggly tire track lines behind it.
What it means: If this light is solidly illuminated, it means your car’s traction or stability control is off. On most vehicles, you can press a button to turn this feature off yourself. But if the light comes on by itself, then some part of the system has failed. Visit your local mechanic to get it repaired ASAP.
What it looks like: On most vehicles, this icon will look like the silhouette of a car engine. But some manufacturers may use the text “CHECK ENGINE” instead.
What it means: A check engine light means that something is wrong with a component of your vehicle’s motor or emissions system. This could signify a major mechanical issue or something as minor as a loose gas cap. Modern engines include dozens of sensors designed to detect and help diagnose potential problems. Your check engine light means that an error has been detected, but the specific “trouble code” needs to be retrieved from your car’s computer using a special code reader. To keep your car running smoothly, get to a service garage as soon as possible.
What it looks like: An image of a car battery that looks like a box containing a “+” and “-” sign.
What it means: The battery light is a sign that there’s trouble with your car’s electrical system. In some instances, this could mean that the battery itself is defective and needs to be replaced. But more often than not, the battery light can signal that your vehicle’s alternator is no longer working – meaning the battery is not being recharged as you drive.
If your battery light is illuminated, stop into a local mechanic or auto parts store as soon as possible to get a diagnosis of your problem. Ignore this light, and it will just be a matter of time until you find yourself stranded.
What it looks like: An outline of a gas pump.
What it means: When the low fuel light is on, it’s time to start looking for a gas station. For most vehicles, this means you only have two or three gallons of fuel left in the tank. In newer cars, this light may also be accompanied by a countdown of miles left until you reach empty.
What it looks like: A side profile of a person seated in a car, with a large ball (depicting the airbag) in front of their head.
What it means: This means your vehicle has detected a problem with its passenger safety system. An airbag light could signify that there’s a problem with an airbag or one of the sensors designed to deploy the airbags in the event of a crash. If you see this light on the dash, you’ll need the help of a mechanic to diagnose and repair the source of the problem. Keep in mind that ignoring this light means you may not be protected by your airbag system if you get into an accident.
What it looks like: A windshield with a stream of water spraying upwards.
What it means: This light means your windshield washer fluid reservoir is empty. To make sure you can see clearly, top off your washer fluid as soon as possible. You can buy a gallon of fluid at a nearby auto parts store, gas station, grocery store or home improvement store.
What it looks like: A circle with what looks like parenthesis on either side. Some vehicles may opt for the word “BRAKE” instead.
What it means: Something is wrong with your vehicle’s braking system. Depending on the make and model of your vehicle, this could include low brake fluid, worn brake pads or an issue with your parking brake. The braking system is critical to the safety and performance of your vehicle, so do not drive with this light illuminated. Call a tow truck and get your car repaired as soon as possible.
Anti-Lock Brake (ABS) System
What it looks like: An icon similar to the brake system, but with the letters ABS incorporated.
What it means: Your car’s ABS light means that something is wrong with the vehicle’s anti-lock brake system – which is designed to prevent your wheels from locking up under a hard stop. Typically, this light means you’ll need to replace an ABS sensor. While your car’s brakes will still work without ABS, you should get your vehicle repaired as soon as possible to restore this important safety feature.
What it looks like: A gear icon with an exclamation point or thermometer in the center.
What it means: When this light pops up on your dash, it signals a problem with your vehicle’s automatic transmission. The exact cause of this light can vary for each automaker. For that reason, it could mean your transmission is overheating – or that a sensor has recorded a mechanical problem with the transmission itself. Whatever the cause, it’s never a good sign. So get your vehicle inspected by a mechanic as soon as possible.
Also, don’t be surprised if your vehicle enters “limp” mode when a transmission warning occurs. This setting limits the top speed of your vehicle as a type of fail-safe to prevent you from causing further damage to your transmission.
Get Back on the Road With ERIE
When you experience an unlucky breakdown with your car, ERIE’s Emergency Roadside Service can save the day. It’s an optional coverage that’s easy to add to your auto insurance policy and doesn’t cost a lot. To learn how ERIE can help you get back on the road, contact us today.
ERIE® insurance products and services are provided by one or more of the following insurers: Erie Insurance Exchange, Erie Insurance Company, Erie Insurance Property & Casualty Company, Flagship City Insurance Company and Erie Family Life Insurance Company (home offices: Erie, Pennsylvania) or Erie Insurance Company of New York (home office: Rochester, New York). The companies within the Erie Insurance Group are not licensed to operate in all states. Refer to the company licensure and states of operation information.
The insurance products and rates, if applicable, described in this blog are in effect as of July 2022 and may be changed at any time.
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