What Do Your Dashboard Lights Actually Mean?
Modern cars are great because they’re packed with electronics and sensors that monitor your vehicle and give you early warning of a potential issue by displaying a light on your dashboard. Knowing what each icon means can help you take action and avoid a car breakdown or an expensive repair job.
With that in mind, we’re going to take a closer look at the most common dashboard warning lights you’re likely to see in your car, from what they mean to what you should do if you see them.
Why the colour of dashboard lights is important
Before we delve into what all those dashboard lights mean, you can learn a thing or two about what your car is trying to tell you simply by looking at the colour of the icons. Most cars use a simple traffic light system to give you information about how it’s performing.
- Green light - you're good to go and whatever system the icon refers to is in use and performing well.
- Amber light - There's an issue with the system that's lit up which you should get checked out if the light remains on.
- Red light - Your car has a serious and potentially dangerous problem and you should take action immediately.
The meaning of common dashboard warning lights
Dashboard lights are not there to panic you, but you should be familiar with these common icons so you can be aware of a potential problem and take appropriate action.
Brake warning light
What it looks like: An exclamation mark in the middle of a circle, sometimes with brackets around the circle.
What it means: In many cases, the brake warning light can simply mean that your handbrake or parking brake is still on. However, if the light stays on when the handbrake is fully released, or it comes on while you’re driving, it could indicate that your brake fluid level is low or that there’s a problem with your brake pads.
What you should do: You should apply your brakes gently when it is safe to do so to test that they work. You should also keep your speed low and pull over when you can, being careful not to brake suddenly. If you know how to check the brake fluid levels yourself then that should be the first thing you do. If you don’t, call a breakdown service or drive yourself to a garage very carefully.
Battery warning light
What it looks like: A rectangular icon that looks like a battery and may have plus and negative signs on it.
What it means: If this dashboard light comes on, you have a battery charging problem and your car is not getting enough ‘juice’ (voltage) from the battery. There could be several reasons for that including a faulty battery or alternator, damaged cabling or a bad electrical connection.
What you should do: If the battery warning light comes on while you’re driving or does not turn off after a few seconds, there are a few troubleshooting steps you can take. Put on some protective gloves and check for corrosion on top of the battery terminals. You can wipe away corrosion and other grime with a household cloth and some elbow grease. You should also check that the cable clamps are tightened and firmly fastened to your battery terminals. If the battery light is still on, you may have a mechanical issue or a battery you need to replace.
Airbag warning light
What it looks like: A person sitting in a car seat with a circle in front of their face.
What it means: If this dashboard light illuminates in your car, it means there could be a problem with one of the airbags. If you’re lucky, it could be an issue with a sensor or connector but it may also be a problem with the airbag itself, the seat belt pre-tensioner or the front passenger occupant classification system.
What you should do: Your airbags are critical to keeping you and your passengers safe, so although your car will continue to drive normally, it’s worth seeking professional help to resolve the issue as soon as you can.
Power steering warning light
What it looks like: A steering wheel next to an exclamation mark.
What it means: Also called the EPS or EPAS light, this dashboard warning light means that you have a problem with some aspect of your power steering. The power steering will usually be disabled until the issue is fixed and you may find that the steering is noticeable heavier, particularly at slow speeds.
What you should do: Stop the car at a safe place and turn the engine off, then wait 30 seconds before turning it back on as the computer may simply need to reboot. However, if the power steering light comes back on, you should get the car checked out at a garage at your earliest opportunity.
Anti-lock braking system warning light
What it looks like: The letters ABS inside a circle that may or may not be in brackets.
What it means: Very simply, there’s something wrong with your anti-lock braking system. That’s not brilliant news, but you should still be able to complete your journey safely before getting it checked out. However, if your brake warning light is also flashing (that’s the exclamation mark in the middle of a circle), your brakes could be failing and you should stop driving immediately.
What you should do: If both of your brake lights are on, you should pull over safely at your first opportunity and call a breakdown service. If your ABS warning light is the only light on, you will still have normal, unassisted braking. At this point, you should take extra care when driving, avoid sudden braking and keep your distance from other vehicles. You should then get your car looked at when you arrive at your destination.
Seatbelt warning light
What it looks like: A person sat down with a diagonal line through them and a seatbelt over their lap.
What it means: This dashboard light can mean a variety of things. If it’s green, it means that everything is working correctly. If it’s amber, it usually means that someone in the car hasn’t buckled up. And if it’s red and stays on after everyone’s belts are on properly, it could mean there’s a more serious issue that you need to look at.
What you should do: Seatbelts are not something you want to take any chances with, so if you have a warning light that does not go off when everyone is buckled up, get it checked out immediately.
Engine management warning light
What it looks like: A simplified car engine.
What it means: This is one dashboard warning light that no driver wants to see as it can be an indication that there’s a serious problem with your car. There are all sorts of issues that can make your engine warning light come on, from the minor, such as a broken sensor, to the major, like catalytic converter issues or a fault with your emission control system.
As well as the engine management warning light, you may also notice other signs that your engine is not working properly. That includes stuttering or a lack of power as your car goes into self-protect mode and automatically limits the revs.
What you should do: You should stop the car as soon as it’s safe to do so and turn the engine off. Even if your car feels normal to drive, it’s important to call the breakdown service as continuing to drive the car could damage the engine further and increase your repair costs. You’ll usually have to perform a full diagnosis to identify the problem.
Engine temperature warning light
What it looks like: A basic thermometer standing in two wavy lines of liquid.
What it means: This is another dashboard warning light you really don’t want to see. If the engine temperature warning light comes on when you’re driving, it means that the engine is too hot. That could be because there isn’t enough coolant in the system, the car’s radiator is leaky or clogged, the water pump is faulty, or the diagnosis of doom - the head gasket has blown. Apart from topping up your coolant, none of these issues are cheap to fix and a blown head gasket could be catastrophic.
What you should do: Pull over as soon as it’s safe to do so and turn the engine off. Give the engine the chance to cool down and then turn it back on to see if the engine temperature warning light is still lit. If it is, or it comes on again when you’re driving, pull over safely and call a breakdown service immediately.
Door, boot and bonnet warning lights
What it looks like: A car from above with the doors open or a car from the side with the bonnet or boot open.
What it means: The good news is there’s probably nothing physically wrong with your car, you just haven’t shut the door, boot or bonnet properly.
What you should do: Shut all of the doors in the car properly when it is safe to do so. If you have shut all doors and the light stays on, the sensor that sends the signal to the light could be faulty and will need to be replaced.
Peace of mind with Tangelo’s RAC warranty
Of course, you don’t want to see any of these dashboard warning lights when you’ve just bought a used car, which is why Tangelo’s RAC warranty provides complete peace of mind that you’ll receive a hassle-free repair at no additional cost. Our used cars also come with 12 months of RAC breakdown cover so you know that expert assistance is never far away. Browse our used cars today.