Your dash lights will turn on every time you start your car. Then, they should go off.

Quick Notes

  • Not every light demands immediate attention

  • Newer cars send drivers reminders for routine checkups

  • One light symbol can have a variety of meanings

Gadgets and gizmos vary from one car brand to another, but there are symbols that you’ll find almost everywhere. Most of the dashboard and warning lights in your car are probably pretty familiar. Others are easily misunderstood and are too important to not know and understand well.

Red lights that will tell you if something is wrong to appear in the instrument cluster and your dashboard. There, you’ll usually also find the fuel gauge, speedometer and revolutions counter. 

Some warning lights are just gentle reminders of things you’ll need to attend to eventually, while others are extremely serious and mean you should pull over and shut off the motor as soon as possible.

Here are the most critical dashboard warning symbols you should know

Airbag warning light – This indicates a fault with the airbag system, aka the supplemental restraint system. It’s not an issue that will affect driving the car. But, if this light is on, it could be very serious if you are involved in an accident. If the light comes one while driving, you should drive with extra caution. It is not a sign that should trigger you to pull over immediately.

 Another version of the airbag warning light can be telling you that the passenger-side airbag has been deactivated. That could happen because it was manually turned off, or because the system detected a baby seat. 

Oil pressure – The old-style oil fill jug indicates something about the engine’s oil is less than ideal. It could indicate issues with oil pressure, oil level, or oil temperature. A red oil pressure light means there isn’t enough oil in the engine to prevent wear and control temperatures. 

It’s important to pull over and shut off the car immediately to prevent engine damage when any variation of this indicator is red. An amber light isn’t as serious. But you should still check the oil level and add oil, if necessary, as soon as possible. 

Unsplash

Engine coolant temperature – A red engine coolant temperature light indicates your car is nearly overheating. That can cause serious damage if you continue to drive. If this light turns red soon after starting the engine, it likely indicates the coolant level is low. When this symbol is blue, it’s to remind the driver to drive with caution until the engine is fully warm.

Brake warning lights – There are several variants of brake warning lights, some of which refer to the parking brake as well. The signal for the parking brake is usually a “P” inside a red circle or an exclamation mark inside a circle. If that symbol is illuminated, it may indicate that the parking brake is engaged. Release it before driving. 

If this light comes on but the parking brake is not engaged, it might be indicating a brake fluid or brake pad issue. Coast to a stop as soon as it is safe to do so, and have your brakes inspected by a mechanic.

In a car with ABS brakes, sometimes there are the letters “ABS” in the circle. Those letters may light up if there is an issue with the ABS sensors on the brakes or wheels. 

Battery warning light – It is unlikely that a car will stop immediately due to a low battery charge. However, some things might stop working. If it’s the only light that is illuminated, you’re likely fine to keep driving a few miles before having it looked at. 

Routine reminders

All dashboard warning lights are not created equal. They don’t all indicate something serious to be concerned about immediately. Many just remind you about ordinary maintenance tasks that need your attention. 

General service reminders – The computers in cars today keep track of general driving conditions and mileage to remind you to have your car serviced periodically. You’ll often see an amber or red wrench, or the words “service engine soon.” This is letting you know that it’s time for an oil change or some other service.

Tire Pressure Monitor System (TPMS) – The passage of time, leaks, damage, and drops in ambient temperature can cause tires to lose air. The resulting loss of pressure can affect the handling, braking, and fuel economy. For these reasons, newer cars have small electronic monitors in the wheels that will warn you on the dash if a tire is off by as little as five psi.

Typically this isn’t cause for immediate alarm, but a TPMS light can indicate that you have run over something and a flat is imminent. Stop at the next service station and check the tire pressure. If it’s low top it up to the manufacturer’s recommended pressure. If it keeps dropping, get your tires examined for damage or excessive wear.

Loose gas cap. Cars now have sealed fuel systems, and will alert you if a leak is detected. Typically, it is just a matter of undoing the filler cap and screwing it back in until it clicks. 

A deeper dive – Related readings from the 101:

These four simple tips for buying a new car will help you make your buying process easier and safer.

Meet the ultimate All-American truck: the 2019 Shelby Ford F-150 family of trucks delivering power, performance, and attitude.