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What Do Your Dashboard Warning Lights Really Mean?

A male driver holding the steering wheel

There are certain signs that every motorist knows to watch out for. No one would ignore their fuel gauge telling them their tank was almost empty, for example. However, it can be a different story when it comes to your dashboard warning lights.

Believe it or not, the constellation of coloured symbols in front of you aren’t just there to be the butt of sitcom jokes. Failing to act on what they’re telling you can lead to a whole host of problems, from long-term performance issues to immediate danger. That’s why it’s so important to know what your dashboard warning lights mean and what action to take when you see them.


Do I need to pay attention to my dashboard warning lights?

While it’s become something of a running joke to imagine that you can simply ignore dashboard warning lights, the reality is no laughing matter. Warning lights let you know about issues that must be addressed as soon as possible. In the worst case scenario, your car could break down in the middle of the road, or your brake system could fail.

It’s also worth remembering that these symbols also carry the moniker “idiot lights”. The reason for this is that they don’t give you a future warning of problems that could happen—they light up when there is already a fault with your car. Failing to address it urgently means you could exacerbate these issues, leaving you and other road users in danger.

With this in mind, it’s time to dive into the meaning of each symbol, so you can avoid driving when it’s unsafe and fix issues before they become an immediate hazard.


Dashboard lights explained

Warnings

Often known as the ‘check engine’ light, this indicates a range of faults with your car’s engine. If the light is constant, then it should be safe to drive. However, you should make it a priority to check your engine. If the light flashes, though, then it is unsafe to drive. Keep your speed down and pull over safely when possible.
Your oil pressure warning light is a cause for immediate concern. This typically arises when your oil level is low, or when something is blocking the flow of oil to your engine. When you see this light, pull over safely and check your oil level. In most cases, topping up should resolve this issue. If not, then this can indicate a fault that could damage your engine. Call your breakdown cover provider.
This light can often appear for a few seconds when you first turn your car on. However, if it’s on for a longer period, it can indicate problems with your car’s electrical system. Your car’s battery should be charging while you’re moving, and major problems could arise if it isn’t. Get this checked out straight away.
When this light shows, it indicates a fault with your brake system. If you need to depress your brake more than usual, this may represent a serious issue and you should pull over as soon as it is safe to do so. Otherwise, it will generally be safe to drive to a garage.
When this light shows, it indicates a fault with your antilock braking system. Unlike a fault with the brake system, it is usually safe to drive when this light shows. Nonetheless, you should fix this problem as soon as possible. If driving in winter, slow down and take extra care.
This light is less common than some of those seen above, and indicates that your brake pads are worn and are too thin. It does not typically signify immediate danger, and it should be safe to drive to a garage to get your brakes checked.
Specific to diesel cars, this light signifies a problem with your diesel particulate filter, or DPF. This is usually a result of stop-start driving. You can usually remedy this by driving at over 40 mph for 10 minutes, when safe to do so. If this does not fix the problem, you may need to pull over and stop the car, as a broken filter means that your car will emit particles which are hazardous to health.
One of the most recognisable symbols, this light indicates that you’re low on fuel. This light isn’t a cause for immediate concern, as it will generally appear when you have enough fuel to make it to a petrol station. However, you should ensure that you top up in good time.
This symbol indicates that you’re low on washer fluid. Refill this to ensure that you can clean your windshield as necessary.
When you see this symbol, it indicates that your engine is too hot, which may be the result of a lack of coolant. Stop your car as soon as it is safe to do so.
This light indicates a problem with your car’s airbag, which may result in it failing to deploy when needed (or, alternatively, deploying at an unexpected time).
If your car does not recognise the key used, this light will appear, indicating that your immobiliser is active.
When you see this warning light, it indicates that your tyre pressure is low. When possible, stop the car and check the tyres with a pressure gauge. Be aware that changing temperatures can affect the pressure in your tyres.
This symbol can indicate a fault with your power steering. If your car uses a hydraulic power steering system, you may need to top up fluid. In cars with electric systems, a restart is sometimes all that is needed to fix the issue. Otherwise, you may need to get your car checked out.
In diesel cars, glow plugs are used to generate heat in your engine. When this symbol appears, these parts are not functioning properly. This will prevent your engine from operating efficiently.
This light will come on when your car’s traction control is active. This is a system which prevents one wheel of your car spinning more than the others, in turn preventing you from losing grip on the road. If “off” appears under this, then the system is not active.

Information

If this light shows, your car’s cruise control is active.
This light indicates that your dipped beam headlights are on.
This light indicates that your full beam headlights are on. Do not use these when other drivers are travelling in the opposite direction towards you, as they may be dazzled. Check out our guide to full beam vs dipped beam headlights.
This light indicates that your front fog lights are on. Only use fog lights when visibility is less than 100 metres (328 feet), and switch them off immediately when this improves.
This light indicates that your rear fog lights are on.
This light indicates that your sidelights are on. You may use these to boost your visibility in the dark, including while parked at night. For more details, visit our guide covering when to use sidelights.
These symbols show that your indicators are on. A similar symbol with the number 1 between the two arrows is used for indicators on a trailer.
As you may expect, this light indicates that one or more doors are open or ajar. Before setting off, be sure that all doors are closed properly.
This light indicates that one or more passengers are not wearing their seatbelt.

As you can see, there are a whole array of dashboard warning lights that you need to pay attention to. Heeding their advice and performing regular car maintenance can help you stay on the road safely for years to come.

By Andy Boardman

Andy fell in love with driving while road tripping around Iceland. He'll provide you with plenty of useful motoring advice, helping you to get the most out of every trip. When he's not writing here, you're most likely to find Andy on the way to his next destination.

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