Dashboard warning lights: What they mean

Alex Hodgson

By: Alex Hodgson

“What does this light mean on my dashboard?” is a universally asked question by drivers with little to no idea what some newly illuminated icon is, that’s appeared unannounced behind their steering wheel. “What do I do now?” is most likely the follow up question. In this blog, we take a look at six of the most typically recognised warning lights, what they mean, and what to do when you spot them.

Your cars onboard computer is called it’s engine management system, and it’s this system which communications with sensors in and around your car’s engine to guarantee the safe running of your vehicles engine components, it also helps you reduce emissions and increase fuel economy. Quite handy to have, right?

Some dashboard lights are specific to certain makes and models of car, but for the most part they are “universal”, or very similar across the board.

Engine warning light

Otherwise known as the Malfunction Indicator Lamp (MIL). This usually illuminates red or a dark orange in colour, but this can vary. It should light up when the ignition is turned on, and will extinguish when the engine is switched on. If it is still visible when the engine is running it indicates there is a malfunction with the engine management system. This needs to be checked by a qualified mechanic as soon as possible. If it flashes whilst driving, avoid high speeds and heavy acceleration and seek assistance straight away.

Oil pressure warning light

As with the engine warning light, this should flash up when you turn on the ignition, and instantly disappear when you start the engine itself. If this isn’t the case, and you’re about to set off on, or you’re on a journey, turn off the engine and check your car’s oil level. If oil is low, make sure to top this up straight away. If the dashboard light is still glowing, seek assistance from your local garage, or the place where you bought your motor.

Battery charge warning light

This should illuminate when the ignition is turned on, and will extinguish when the engine is started, if it’s working as it should be. If it does not light up at all, or it appears when you’re on a journey then your battery isn’t being charged due to a fault with the battery charge system. Causes for this light showing could be due to a loose or corroded connection on the car battery’s terminals, a faulty alternator or the battery could be flat. Make sure your vehicle is in a safe place and seek assistance as soon as possible.

Brake system warning light

Your brake system light should be on when your handbrake is on, if this isn’t the correct and the icon stays lit when you remove your handbrake, it may mean your brake fluid level is low. For this, you will need to add brake fluid immediately to the ‘MAX’ requirement. If, after filling up the brake fluid the icon is still showing seek assistance from a local garage or your dealer, as there could be another problem, like a sensor fault.

ABS warning light

ABS is short for ‘Anti-Lock Braking System’ and it’s this nifty system which maintains your car’s traction, prevents skidding and stops the wheels of the vehicle “locking up”. The icon for this will light up when you’re driving if you have an issue with your ABS. This must be checked as soon as possible. The light, upon ignition start-up illuminates, and then disappears once the engine is switched on. Normal braking is usually maintained for your vehicle and you should be okay to drive on, but for some cars this isn’t always the case. If you’re unsure, check your car’s handbook for advice, and get your vehicle checked promptly.

Engine overheating dashboard light

If this dashboard light appears while you’re driving, make sure that, when safe to do so, you pull over the vehicle promptly, when it is safe to do so and turn off the engine. This light indicates that your engine system is very hot, to the point of being dangerous, and serious damage could follow, to both yourself and your car. Once you have turned off the engine, wait for the engine to cool down, and check the level of coolant you have available. Possible causes for the light appearing could be that you have a blockage in the coolant system, some sort of leak, or insufficient coolant. Coolant can be purchased from suppliers such as Halfords, or your dealer.

Top tip:

Give your car’s handbook a thorough read if you’ve never done so, familiarise yourself with it and make sure you know what to do. This will ensure that when you see any unusual icon light up on your dashboard, you will be fully prepared.