Updated: Jan 9
Modern vehicles are packed with technology and have many sensors that monitor how your vehicle is operating. The more sensors there are the more likely something will go wrong.
If something goes wrong there are a variety of dashboard warning lights and symbols that can illuminate.
Table of Contents:
What Is a Car Dashboard Warning Light?
Car dashboard warning lights are lights and symbols on a car's dashboard that are designed to alert the driver to potential problems or issues with the vehicle. These lights are typically labelled with a symbol that represents the system or component that is being monitored.
When a warning light comes on, it typically indicates that the car's computer has detected a problem or fault with the system or component.
In some cases, the warning light may come on briefly and then turn off, indicating that the problem was a temporary issue that has been resolved. In other cases, the warning light may remain on, meaning that the problem is more severe and requires immediate attention.
If a warning light comes on, it is crucial to take notice and take appropriate action.
Depending on the severity of the problem, this may involve stopping the car as soon as its safe to do so and checking for any visible issues, such as a loose fuel cap or low tyre pressure.
If the problem is not immediately apparent and the warning light is yellow or amber, the driver should consult the car's owner's manual and have it investigated. You should stop if you notice any obvious problems or if the car enters limp home mode.
If the warning light is red in colour of is flashing or blinking, it usually indicates a serious issue and you should stop and turn the engine off as soon as you can.
Pay attention to car dashboard warning lights and take appropriate action, as ignoring them can lead to further damage to the car and put the driver and passengers at risk.
List of Dashboard Warning Lights
Manufacturers often use their own warning lights but most vehicles will show the warning symbols shown below.
The warning lights on your dashboard adhere to a traffic light colour scheme.
Green: A green symbol or light indicates that the system is operational or that it is actively in use (e.g. cruise control or headlights).
Yellow: A yellow symbol indicates something isn't operating properly; take significant care and check as as soon as possible.
Red: A red symbol signifies a major and possibly dangerous issue exists; stop driving and switch the engine off as soon as it's safe to do so.
Check Engine Light
The check engine light (CEL), also known as malfunction indicator lamp (MIL) or ECU warning light, is the most infamous dashboard warning light. It usually signifies an issue with the powertrain (engine, transmission, and related parts).
There are oftentimes a huge variety of causes for a check engine light, sometimes it's something minor and other times it can be something serious.
If you notice the check engine light illuminate on your dashboard you should scan your ECU with an OBD scanner to see what the issue relates to. You should avoid driving or starting the vehicle until the issue is resolved.
Power Steering Warning Light (EPS / EPAS)
This dashboard warning light indicates that the power steering is malfunctioning.
The solution may be as easy as restarting. Find a safe spot to stop and try turning off the vehicle and turning it on again after 30 seconds. If the power steering warning light remains on, you should get your vehicle inspected as soon as possible.
It's possible to drive with a power steering malfunction, but you should avoid driving if possible.
If you decide to drive with a power steering failure, note the following things:
Avoid driving at high-speed and avoid high-speed roads.
Your steering wheel can become very difficult to turn and your vehicle will be difficult to manoeuvre.
Avoid long or sharp bends and turns, try to drive mostly straight roads.
Take extreme caution when driving with a power steering failure because your ability to quickly react to obstacles in the road will be reduced.
Exhaust Particulate & DPF Warning Light
If you have a diesel, one of these lights may illuminate if there is an issue with the exhaust particle filter, which filters toxic soot from exhaust fumes in order to reduce emissions. It is possible that the filter has gotten clogged with soot.
Modern petrol cars may also have an exhaust particulate filter.
Driving with a clogged filter may do harm to your vehicle, increase back pressure in the exhaust, reduce fuel efficiency, and increase emissions. You can drive with an exhaust particulate filter dashboard warning light but get it repaired as soon as possible.
Oil Warning Light
This dashboard oil warning light signifies low oil pressure or high oil temperature.
When there is an issue with the engine oil, such as too low or too high pressure, or the oil temperature is too high, the oil warning light illuminates.
If the oil is not properly lubricating the engine, it can cause expensive or even irreversible engine damage, this warning light can be the sign of a serious issue.
When this light illuminates, you should come to a complete stop as soon as its safe to do so and switch off the engine. Examine under the vehicle for any visible oil leaks, and then check the oil levels, filling up as needed.
If the oil levels are normal, the oil pump might be defective. It's advised to avoid starting the engine or driving the vehicle, you should have the vehicle recovered.
Take a look around for any visible leaks in the engine bay. If you can't see any and the oil warning light turns off after topping up the oil, you're good to go. If the light comes back on after topping up, have the issue investigated and avoid driving.
Electronic Stability Program (ESP) Warning Light
This dashboard warning light, also known as electronic stability control (ESC), indicates a problem with traction control.
If the symbol is flashing, it implies the ESP system is acting, such as if you're driving on a wet or muddy road. If the ESP warning light is continuously on, it indicates that the stability control system is not functioning correctly.
If the system has been disabled, the ESP warning light will illuminate with the word "OFF", indicating that the system is switched off.
To test the system, turn off and restart the engine. If the indicator stays on after restarting, you should have the issue fixed as soon as possible. If you decide to drive with a malfunctioning stability system you should note the following.
If you drive on a slippery road (such as a wet, muddy, or icy road) your driven wheels will spin if they lose grip and the ESP system will not reduce this wheel spin.
If you are going round a bend too fast the ESP system may not activate and help the vehicle turn (it does this by applying the brakes on certain wheels to assist cornering).
If you encounter a situation in which the vehicle loses traction and encounters a spin-out, the ESP system may not prevent this.
Tyre Pressure Warning Light
Many cars now have tyre pressure monitoring systems that alert you when the pressure drops. This might develop over time or as a result of a puncture.
You should pull over as soon as you can safely and check the tyres visually.
You can drive with low tyre pressure but you should drive cautiously, drive very slow (under 20 mph depending on how low the pressure is) and fill up with air as soon as possible.
Low tyre pressure can lead to risky driving situations, so slow down and avoid abrupt braking or aggressive steering manoeuvres.
Most fuel stations and garages will have an air compressor available for you to use to check your tyre pressure. Fill the tyres with air according to the car manufacturer's specifications in your vehicle handbook.
Engine Temperature Warning Light
This dashboard warning light is also known as the coolant temperature warning light.
When the engine overheats, this warning light will illuminate. This can indicate that coolant levels are low, perhaps due to a leak in the system, or it could indicate a greater issue, such as a head gasket failure.
If the warning light is red, you should stop as soon as you safely can. A lack of coolant may cause your engine to severely overheat, causing irreversible engine damage. Your vehicle would likely enter failsafe mode (limp mode) due to overheating.
Wait for the engine to cool down (wait at least 30 minutes) before checking the coolant levels and filling them up.
Take a look around for any visible coolant leaks or steam. If you can't see any and the warning light turns off after topping up the coolant, you're good to go.
If the temperature warning light comes back on after topping up the coolant, you should avoid driving the car and have it fixed.
Coolant Level Warning Light
To prevent your engine from overheating, coolant fluid absorbs heat from the engine and disperses it through the radiator. This yellow dashboard warning light will illuminate when coolant levels are low, reminding you to fill them up.
Avoid making long drives without enough coolant. Stop and fill up the coolant as soon as possible otherwise you can cause major harm to your vehicle. Allow the engine to cool down before filling up (wait around 30 minutes before checking and filling up).
If this warning light appears often, check your vehicle for coolant leaks.
Brake Warning Light
This dashboard warning light is also known as the braking system warning light, parking brake warning light, or brake fluid warning light.
If this red light stays on after completely releasing the parking brake (hand brake) or illuminates while driving, it may indicate that the brake fluid level is low.
If the ABS warning light illuminates, it indicates that the braking system has failed and your brakes may not perform correctly. The electronic brake force distribution (EBD) warning light may also appear in this circumstance.
You should not drive the vehicle if this warning light is illuminated. Because your vehicle's brakes are one of its most vital safety elements, it's important that you respond quickly when you notice this dashboard warning light.
Come to a complete stop as soon as it is safe to do so, make sure you keep your speed low and avoid abrupt braking, gently brake earlier than you usually would. Don't drive while your brakes aren't working correctly.
Anti-Lock Brake System (ABS) Warning Light
The anti-lock braking system is a crucial safety feature that comes into action when you need to make a sudden stop or while braking on slippery surfaces such as icy, wet, or muddy roads.
If the ABS warning light turns on by itself, you should still have normal, unassisted braking.
You can continue driving if the roads aren't slippery but you should extra care.
Ensure you maintain extra distance from vehicles in front of you.
Avoid braking harshly.
Brake earlier than you would normally.
If the roads are icy, wet, or muddy you should avoid driving if your ABS system doesn't work.
Battery Warning Light
The battery dashboard warning light is also known as the battery charging system light or the battery charge light.
When this warning light illuminates while driving, it indicates that the battery is not charging properly. This could be due to an issue with your vehicle's electrical system, such as a faulty alternator, a faulty battery, damaged, corroded or loose wiring.
Your vehicle will continue to operate normally until the battery dies, but once that happens, nothing in your car will function. This can lead to a breakdown situation and you should avoid driving until this issue is repaired.
If your battery runs out of charge you can jump start it or trickle charge it.
Brake Pad Warning Light
If this warning light illuminates, it means a sensor has detected that your brake pads are too thin. It is also known as the brake pad wear warning light.
This dashboard warning light should illuminate before the brake pads become dangerously thin, giving you enough time to replace them.
However, you should replace them as soon as possible since if they wear out entirely, it can lead to brake failure and an inability to stop properly. It is safe to drive while there is still brake pad material left.
Airbag Warning Light
The supplemental restraint system (SRS) warning light is another name for it.
When this light turns red, it indicates that at least one component of the airbag safety system is malfunctioning, there are three main components of an airbag safety system.
It can be the airbag system itself malfunctioning.
It can be the front passenger occupant classification system (which detects the front passenger's weight and position so the airbag can be safely deployed).
It can be the seat belt pretensioner system (which tightens the belt in the event of a crash).
If the airbag system is not functioning correctly, it may not deploy in an accident, or it may deploy suddenly when its not required. You should avoid driving a vehicle with an airbag warning light as it can be dangerous, especially if the airbag deploys unexpectedly as this can cause a crash.
Have the issue resolved as soon as you can.
Other Warning Lights
There are some other common dashboard warning lights as shown below.
Lamp Out Warning Light
Sometimes when a light bulb goes out, some vehicles may display a lamp out warning. This is also known as a "light out" or "bulb out" warning. It signifies that a light bulb is not working somewhere on the vehicle.
Low Fuel Warning Light
A low fuel warning light signifies that your vehicle has low fuel, the level of fuel to trigger this dashboard warning light is different for every car manufacturer but is estimated to be triggered when fuel reaches about 10-15% of the fuel tank capacity.
Low Washer Fluid
Not all vehicles have a low washer fluid warning symbol but many do. It signifies that the level of washer fluid is low and should be refilled. Once the washer fluid has been refilled it should go out straight away.
Resetting / Turning Off Dashboard Warning Lights
If a car warning light appears on your dashboard, you know you have a problem with your vehicle.
The warning light may stay on after the repair is completed. Your onboard computer may need to be reset, follow the steps below to reset warning lights.
Open and shut the hood (bonnet).
Turn your vehicle off.
Lock all doors.
Wait 30 seconds.
Turn vehicle on
If the warning light still turns on, you can disconnect the negative (ground) terminal from your battery, wait 15-30 minutes, reconnect it.
Sometimes you may need to drive for a time for it to reset itself. If the warning lights stay on after these steps, the problem may still exist or another issue may be affecting your car.