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A Breakdown of Your Car’s Dash Lights: Part 1

Seeing a light appear in your dashboard can be alarming, especially if you don’t know what it means. Thankfully, the auto industry has standardised the lights across each car to make it easy to identify which symbol is flashing – so it’s just a matter of developing a good sense of what each means. To build up your knowledge, Novus highlights half of the symbolic lights you’ll see on your dash – there’s just too many to fit in one article, so here’s part one.

While most lights are generally the same across various makes and models, there could always be some that appear different for your vehicle. That’s why it’s always important to go back to your specific driver’s manual to familiarise yourself with the specific signals. Overall, your car’s dash lights have been designed to signal to you potential problems with the car, any safety issues, and immediate failure points you need to address immediately. Understanding these symbols can help you prepare for a potential breakdown or full-on failure, so that you can pull over safely and seek assistance.

It may surprise you to know, but your car is an extremely smart system. Sensors and electronics are constantly monitoring how your car is behaving, and should there be any issues, your car communicates this to you with these warning lights – so let’s learn what some of them actually mean!

What Lights Appear On Your Car’s Dashboard

Your car’s dashboard will be made up of a range of lights; however, not all of them are critical warnings. The lights are generally categorised into the following purposes, with varying levels of urgency.

  • Warning Symbols: indicate potential problems with the vehicle.
  • Safety Symbols: indicate issues with the vehicle requiring immediate attention or checking.
  • Lighting Symbols: are connected to a vehicle’s lighting system, which often appear blue, green or yellow.
  • Common Symbols: relate to common features of a vehicle.
  • Advanced Feature Symbols: are associated with special and advanced features of a vehicle, prompting you of potential issues or if the system is active/operational.

The Lights You Should Be Worried About

Upon turning the key in your car’s ignition or pressing the starter button, dashboard lights in different colours will appear momentarily. If these lights remain on when the engine is running, this indicates a potential electrical problem like a failing ignition switch.  It is important that no dashboard lights are ignored as you operate your vehicle as all have a purpose and indicate potential problems with the car. Warning symbols are essential to monitor particularly closely. Thankfully, your car manufacturer has made it fairly easy to assess the severity of the issue by colour coding your warning lights – they follow the traffic light colour system of green, yellow and red to demonstrate the urgency of the warning. Here’s what they mean.

  • Green (and Blue) lights: the system is working correctly or a feature is currently in use/engaged (for example, the boot is open).
  • Yellow/Amber lights: This is a lower-grade hazard or warning light. There is something not working properly that requires greater care and to be checked as soon as possible (for example, you’re about to run out of fuel).
  • Red lights: This is a serious, potentially dangerous problem. If you see a light that is this colour, you should stop driving as soon as possible and act quickly (for example, the engine is overheating).

Without further adieu and in no particular order, let’s begin understanding the specific lights in your dash!

1. Engine Temperature

This serious warning light indicates that the engine temperature has exceeded its normal limits. This light could indicate a problem with the coolant levels, engine fans/ ventilation, or radiator cap. It’s important to resolve this as soon as possible to avoid damage and car failure. What you can immediately do is check the coolant levels (and check under the car to see if there’s a leak) and call your mechanic for a service (you might need a call-out service if you can visibly see smoke).

2. Battery

This light indicates the car’s charging system is short of power or not charging properly. It often signals problems with the battery itself or alternator. If the battery is the culprit, you may notice the clock fading or headlights dimming in addition to this light. If you wait too long, the vehicle can completely conk out. Thankfully, it’s easy enough replacing the battery yourself or you can call roadside assistance to do it for you (although this is obviously more expensive). A more serious problem with the car’s wiring, alternator or drive belt, however, will require attention from an expert.

3. Oil Pressure

This indicates loss of oil pressure, meaning lubrication is low or lost completely. Upon seeing this symbol, immediately check the oil level and pressure – you may simply have to top up oil, which is extremely easy to do yourself. If the light remains on after topping, this could be a serious problem with the engine, requiring a mechanic to investigate. A leak, faulty pump, or too little oil can cause damage to the car’s engine, leading to significant costs in repair.

4. Brakes

This light turns on when the handbrake is on; if it turns on while driving, ensure the handbrake is fully released to try and deactivate the light. If lit continuously, this indicates hydraulic pressure has been lost in one side of the brake system or the fluid level in the master cylinder is dangerously low (due to a leak somewhere in the brake system). If the pedal feels spongy when pressed or sinks all the way to the floor, then there’s an obvious issue – this should be dealt with immediately. Of course, should the light disappear after releasing your handbrake, you’re fine.

5. Tyre Pressure

This indicates pressure in one or more tyres is too low or too high. Driving on tyres with too low or high pressure is unsafe as it can significantly alter a vehicle’s handling and can cause further damage to the car. Low tyre pressure especially can adversely impact car’s braking and cornering. On the other hand, too much pressure means less contact with the road and less traction. A sudden drop in pressure can also cause a dangerous blow-out at high speeds, so don’t ignore this symbol while driving. If there’s been an obvious puncture, you’ll need to change the tyre to the spare or use a puncture repair kit.

6. Airbags

This light signals something is wrong with one of the car’s airbags or the systems as a whole. While not as urgent as the other lights, having a fault with your airbags could mean they may not deploy in the event of an accident. Airbags can save your life in an accident, so it’s important to address this issue immediately from a safety point of view.

7. Check Engine Light

The ‘check engine’ light warns of any engine-related issues and may appear for a variety of reasons. For example, it could indicate low oil pressure or overheating, or that the gas cap is open, loose, or cracked, causing fuel to evaporate. When this light appears, it’s wise to pull over and check the gas cap and other systems. If the light is flashing, it’s important to stop driving, as this usually signals a serious problem that could cause serious damage if ignored. Even if your car is driving normally at the time, it is important to follow the advice of the symbol and check the engine – along with the gas cap.  There’s always the possibility that there may be a faulty sensor with the light (this can be the case with any light); however, it’s always good to err on the side of caution. Book a service and get a proper diagnosis if possible to prevent further damage.

8. Fuel

This is no doubt one of the most self-explanatory/obvious symbols on the dashboard – and one of the most easily played-off as unserious. The fuel light signals when the amount of fuel in the tank has fallen below a certain threshold, giving you just enough time to locate a fuel station. And you really should get yourself to a close-by petrol station, even if you “know your car” – otherwise you might end up stalling on a busy road. While running out of fuel won’t cause any mechanical damage to a vehicle, stopping on the road from running dry is an offence. If you’re running out of fuel quicker than expected, this may signal a fuel leak – you should consult a professional to check this. A sure sign is a puddle of fuel under your car while it is stationary.

9. Seat belt

Wearing a seat belt in a vehicle is mandatory. Hence, the vast majority of modern cars signal if passengers have not got their seatbelts fastened – most vehicles will also accompany the light with a persistent beeping noise to signal that passengers should fasten their seat belts. Unless you enjoy this annoying sound and light display, you may want to heed the warning of this light.

10. Traction Control

This light appears when tyres begin to lose grip, usually in rain or snow. This symbol gives visual indication that you’re close to the limit of grip. If light is on constantly, it usually means it’s deactivated – by fault or by you manually switching the system off. If there’s a fault, it is important to get it checked by a professional. If manually switched off, you should simply turn it back on (there should be a button with a similar symbol).

That’s all for part one – did you recognise all of the lights? If not, it may be your signal to have another skim through your vehicle’s owner’s manual!

You See a Light – What’s Next?

As mentioned in the descriptions, some lights require immediate attention, whereas others simply require checking systems relating to that light. For the more serious dash lights, it’s worth taking time to schedule an appointment at a mechanic for assessment. It could be nothing, or something more serious could turn up – the point is, you don’t know unless you check!

There are many lights on the car’s dashboard, all with different meanings – in fact, we couldn’t fit them all in this article. These lights serve a key function in your car, so it’s good to have a basic understanding of what they mean. Paying attention to your car’s dashboard lights can help avoid a breakdown, potentially saving you from an expensive repair bill and keeping you safe on the road.

Novus Autoglass is a global brand in glass repair. Novus repairs and replaces broken and cracked windscreens efficiently using the latest technology to get you back on the road faster. Book in your service online or call 13 22 34 today to hear more about our services.