Your car’s warning lights and indicators notify you if something is wrong with your car, that something is activated, or sometimes even assure you that everything is as it should be.
The car dashboard is an important communication tool for the driver, therefore, knowing car dashboard symbols and their meanings are essential to protect you, your passengers, and your car.
Some lights need immediate intervention, while others are purely informative of the state of the car and do not need any intervention at all.
In this hand-crafted guide, I will extensively go through the most common car dashboard symbols and meanings and any important things you should consider if a specific light is illuminated.
Find out all about dashboard symbols and names below!
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Even if you do not know exactly what the light means, there are some general things about car symbols on the dashboard that you should know.
Firstly, the color of the light tells you the urgency and importance of said light.
A red light indicates a serious and/or urgent problem. If it lights up, you should stop the car safely as soon as possible.
On the other hand, a yellow light indicates there is less of an emergency but that it should be checked as soon as possible.
Just like everything, there are exceptions, but keep in mind these general considerations which are especially important if you have not seen the specific dashboard light before.
Most Common Warning Light Symbols
Below, the most common dashboard light symbols are listed. However, the symbols might differ slightly depending on the car model.
It is also important to notice that it is perfectly normal for some dashboard lights to illuminate when turning on the ignition and later disappear when the car is turned on.
This happens for several reasons. On one hand, it ensures the light works if a problem occurs.
On the other hand, some systems are checked when turning on the car. If the lights turn off within a few seconds after the car is on, everything is fine.
It is great to get familiar with the dashboard light even when everything is fine, as you would have an easier time recognizing any unusual things.
Here are the most common and important dashboard lights and their meanings:
Check Engine Light
A yellow check engine light can be due to many reasons, both serious and less serious. It can be everything from a bad sensor to the fuel cap not being tightened.
If it turns on while driving, make sure to drive carefully and avoid putting unnecessary stress on the car. Take the car to a trusted mechanic or read the code with a code reader.
Coolant Temperature Warning
This red, sometimes yellow, light indicates that the engine is getting overheated, which can be detrimental for the engine.
If this lights up, you should stop the car safely as soon as possible and shut off the engine.
The cause can be due to a low amount of coolant level, radiator problems, a coolant leak, or even something as serious as a fire in the engine compartment.
If any smoke is present in the engine problem, ensure not to inhale it as it can be toxic.
Battery Warning Light
The battery warning light indicates a problem with the voltage system, whether the battery or the alternator.
This can be due to many things, such as a bad battery, alternator, or any of the parts that affect the voltage system.
If you have a multimeter, you can diagnose the problem easily by checking the voltage.
It may disappear after driving for a while as the battery gets properly charged by the alternator. This may happen due to a bad battery or a car that has been parked for a long time.
Oil Pressure Warning
Low oil pressure is a serious problem. If this light turns on, stop safely as soon as possible, and turn off the engine.
Low oil pressure can be due to many things, including a low oil level, oil leak, clogged oil filter, and much more. Do not start the engine until the problem is resolved!
Brake Warning Light
An illuminated brake warning light can be extremely serious, and you should stop the car safely as soon as possible.
It may be caused by low brake fluid, sensor failure, and bad brake pads. In some cars, the brake warning light is illuminated when the parking brake is engaged.
Maintaining your brakes is extremely important, as losing stopping power in the middle of a drive can be detrimental.
The anti-lock braking system light indicates that the ABS is unable to work properly.
This can be for various reasons, including a broken ABS module, a faulty wheel speed sensor, or something related to your brakes.
If both the brake warning light and the ABS light illuminate, you should not drive under any circumstances until you figure out where the problem lies.
You can drive without the ABS activated, however, under hard braking, the wheels risk getting locked up, increasing the braking distance for most drivers and making it impossible to steer.
Glow Plug Light
Unlike gasoline engines, diesel engines do not use spark plugs to ignite the air/fuel mixture and consequently make power.
Instead, they rely on compression of the air/fuel mixture, which makes it incredibly hot, producing a controlled explosion and generating power.
The glow plugs heat up the air, helping the mixture in the combustion chamber reach a sufficient temperature for controlled combustion.
If there is something wrong with the glow plugs, the glow plug light will blink. The fault may be due to electrical problems, or the glow plugs themselves may be bad.
If the engine is running, it most probably is not a serious problem, but make sure to resolve it as soon as possible.
A tire-pressure warning light notifies that the tire pressure is too low.
This can either be due to a flat tire or simply a low tire pressure due to the natural tendency of the tire to lose pressure over time.
Make sure that your tire is not flat or has a leak. If it does not, all you have to do is to pressurize it within the recommended range.
If the tire pressure is on the borderline of the acceptable range, the light may come and go depending on the temperature of the tire, which is affected by ambient temperature and driving.
Traction Control Light
The traction control light may be illuminated for a variety of reasons and is usually depicted as a sliding car.
If the traction control engages, it will blink, letting you know it is active at that moment. This is, in most cases, obvious as the driving conditions are suboptimal, such as icy roads.
If you deactivate the traction control, the light will illuminate the dashboard, confirming it is off. This is done in most cars with the press of a button.
The most serious reason that the traction control light is on is due to a problem with the system. If that is the cause, the problem is usually in one of the sensors connected to the system.
If the road conditions are bad, it is not advisable to continue driving. Otherwise, you may continue driving but make sure to solve the problem as soon as possible.
A check engine light that is cut in half or a message saying “reduced engine power” is also called limp mode. In some car models, the mode is shared with the check engine light.
This activates as a safety mechanism to not stress the engine and cause potential damage.
The limp mode may be activated by a great variety of things. If it turns on, make sure to take it to a mechanic to diagnose the problem.
The car will feel slow and not respond as it normally does when you press the gas pedal or change gears in an automatic transmission.
Transmission Temperature Warning
An overheating transmission can cause a lot of trouble and damage due to its very delicate parts and mechanisms.
If the transmission temperature warning is on, you should stop the car immediately and let the transmission cool off. Check the transmission fluid level and fill it up if needed.
Never drive with the transmission temperature warning on, as it can be detrimental to your transmission leading to expensive repairs or transmission repair.
Airbag Warning Light
The airbag warning light should not be taken lightly as it is a great safety concern. The warning indicates that one or more airbags will not deploy in case of a collision.
There are multiple reasons why the airbag warning light is illuminated. In most cases, the problem is with a sensor or a wiring fault.
The airbag light does not necessarily indicate a problem with the airbag system but also with the supplemental restraint system, which includes seatbelt tensioners, several sensors, and modules.
It is, therefore, extremely important to address and fix the issue as soon as possible. Do not simply erase the code, and hope for the best.
Low-Fuel Warning Light
Most car drivers are familiar with this light and know what it means; the fuel is low and should be filled up again.
It is best to refuel as soon as possible. As a matter of fact, you should not let the fuel deplete to the extent that the warning light comes on, and there are a few reasons why.
The most obvious reason is to prevent getting stranded in the middle of the road, but there are also other reasons everyone may not think about.
For example, the fuel pump is cooled by the fuel itself. A lower amount of fuel means that the cooling is compromised and can lead to accelerated tear to the fuel pump. So pump up the jam!
Bulb Failure Light
A bulb lighting up does not mean your car just had a great idea but that there is a light somewhere that does not work.
Most people may think of exterior lights such as headlights, brake lights, reverse lights, and so on.
This may be the case, but it can also be due to the license plate bulb, which may be a bit harder to notice in broad daylight.
Washer Fluid Light
Just like the fuel light, many are familiar with this light. All you have to do is fill up the washer fluid. Unlike the fuel light, having low washer fluid will not have any potential costly consequences.
Other Important Dashboard Lights
While the above-mentioned warning lights are the most common ones, there are also a few car dashboard symbols and meanings you should know about.
Here are a few dashboard lights that are not as common as the previous ones but are very useful to know.
Electronic Throttle Control Warning Light
In modern cars, the throttle body is controlled electronically instead of the accelerator being directly connected to the throttle plate by a wire, like in the past.
The electronic throttle control warning comes up when there is something wrong in the system and can come with many signs and symptoms, such as uneven and sporadic idling and acceleration issues.
There are many causes, and can include a dirty throttle body, bad sensors, or a bad module. Be very careful driving the car and make sure to fix it as soon as possible. The car will probably engage limp mode.
There are a few maintenance steps you can take to make the throttle body and fuel injectors work more efficiently longer, as this article from Mobil explains.
Collision Warning Light
There are several collision warning lights, but they all suggest the same – either the system is off or an immediate collision is nearby.
If the latter is true, there will also be an acoustic signal warning the driver of a potential collision situation.
The collision warning system can be deactivated, which will illuminate the dashboard light.
If there is something wrong with the system, it will also illuminate, signaling that it will not work properly and that you should get it fixed.
Power Steering Warning Light
The power steering warning light indicates a fault in, you guessed it, the power steering mechanism.
There are different types of power steering systems, older cars do not have power steering at all, while newer cars usually have electric power steering, and others have hydraulic power steering.
Whatever type of power steering you have, it will be much harder to steer the car as nothing is helping you rotate the wheels except your sheer strength.
The diesel exhaust fluid, DEF for short, also called AdBlue, is used in diesel cars to reduce toxic pollutants from the engine. Some cars will only notify by text, while others have a dedicated light.
The DEF light will come up when the fluid level is low and must be refilled. If you fail to refill the diesel exhaust fluid to the point that there is no fluid left, the car will not start.
It will not damage your car at all, but it is programmed in your car’s ECU to not start on an empty DEF tank due to emission standards.
Lane Assist Light
A green lane assist light informs the driver that the system is engaged. On the other hand, an amber lane assist light indicates that no road markings can be detected or that the system has an error.
If the amber lane assist light is illuminated with an error message, the system cannot be engaged as there is something wrong with it.
Just like with any modern technology, chances are there is something wrong with the electrical compartment.
Air Suspension Warning
A light that depicts a car with an arrow pointing up and down indicates a problem with the air suspension.
In most cases, there is either a leak in the suspension or the compressor has given up. Whatever the cause, you should fix this as soon as possible and drive very carefully to the mechanic if needed,
If it turns out to be a leak, the compressor will constantly try to fight the leak, which can lead to even further damage to your wallet. Therefore, make sure to fix the problem as soon as possible.
Not All Symbols Are The Same
While many symbols are universal, many dashboard lights differ depending on the car manufacturer.
In general, most car warning symbols are similar with only slight alterations, but some symbols are totally different from other car manufacturers.
For example, BMW and MINI have a light depicting a car on the ramp. This light can mean anything from ignition problems and starter motor problems to bad oil sensors and fuel pumps.
Therefore, it is best to get familiar with your car model, in particular, however, this article covers the most frequent, universal, and important car dashboard symbols and meanings.