It’s a universal driving experience: you’re in your car enjoying the ride and suddenly you hear that “ding!” and a light appears on the dashboard. It’s usually something simple like a low fuel warning, but other times you’ll encounter a symbol you’ve never seen before and aren’t sure what it means.
Did you know there are over 60 different symbols that can appear on your dashboard? You’ll probably never encounter all of them, but they range from common indicators like “door open” to notifications about your headlights, safety reminders, potential danger and even some symbols that are unique to diesel-powered vehicles. In this post, we’ll cover some of the most common warning lights that can appear on your dashboard with explanations of what they mean and instructions on how they can be fixed.
Dashboard warning lights and symbols
The check engine light (CEL) is one of the most common, and also most vague, lights that can appear on your dashboard. It can refer to many issues surrounding your vehicle’s engine, but you can’t exactly be sure until you have a professional check it out. If your car sounds good and feels fine to drive, a CEL doesn’t mean you need to immediately get into a repair shop, but you shouldn’t procrastinate too long either.
“Check engine” could just mean that your gas cap is loose or damaged, or it could be something more serious like a problem with your car’s emissions. Since the check engine light could mean many things, there are also many possibilities when it comes to fixing it. Your best bet is to visit your dealership’s service department or a service shop at your earliest convenience and let them diagnose the problem.
The battery light is a simple one to identify: it usually looks just like a little battery, sometimes even with the + and – indicators on each side. When this symbol appears on your dashboard it means that your vehicle’s battery is low or not charging properly. Oftentimes this dashboard warning light will turn off after you’ve been driving for a while, but if it doesn’t, that could mean your alternator isn’t generating enough voltage to properly charge your battery.
You can fix the problem by turning off other electrical components in your car like the overhead lights and removing applications like phone chargers for a period of time. This will reduce the strain on your car’s battery and give it a chance to recharge as you drive. If the problem persists, you may have a more serious issue with your battery in which case a visit to a mechanic would be wise.
When you see an airbag warning sign on your dashboard, it could mean several things. This dashboard warning light can indicate problems with your vehicle’s seat belts or airbags, which can present some pretty serious safety concerns. It means that the car is detecting an issue that could prevent the airbags from deploying correctly, or that the seatbelts are not buckled properly.
Sometimes this is an easy fix. The first thing you can do is make sure that all passengers are buckled up. When you have heavy items in one of the passenger seats, that could also be triggering the warning—either move the objects to the trunk or floor or buckle them in for safety as well. If you’re sure that everyone has their seatbelts on and the light remains, then it could be a more serious problem or an issue with your car’s internal computer.
For cars that were in a recent accident where the airbags were deployed, there’s a chance that the airbag sensors were not reset. If this light persists then it’s in the best interest of you and your passengers to visit an automotive service center to check it out. It could be a simple adjustment to your car’s sensors, but it could also be a serious issue with one of your car’s most important safety features.
The washer fluid light is a simple and relatively harmless warning, but it’s uncommon enough to confuse plenty of drivers. All this dashboard warning light means is that your washer fluid levels are low and you’re going to have to refill it soon. This is rarely a critical warning, but if you’re driving in conditions where dirt, mud, ice or road salt are sticking to your window then you might want to act fast.
All you need to do to get this light off your dashboard is to fill up your washer fluid.
Your tire pressure warning light, also known as the tire pressure monitor system (TPMS for short) is there to let you know when your tires’ air pressure drops below recommended levels. This is a common occurrence when colder temperatures arrive and tire pressure drops as a result—you might even see the light appear on chilly mornings and then go away as the day warms up again.
If your tire pressure light stays on persistently, do an inspection of your tires and try to find the one with low pressure. If the light remains on and you notice a rough, bumpy ride it could mean that you have a flat tire. You can easily fill up your air cheaply or even free at many gas stations or service centers. Driving with low-pressure tires can cause damage or even failure in your tires, so it’s smart to take care of this issue before too long.
This one is similar to the washer fluid light in the sense that it has to do with your car’s fluid levels being low. In this case, however, it’s a more important fluid. Maintaining the oil levels in your car’s engine is something you want to keep top of mind, as it affects the overall performance of your vehicle and can cause damage if left unchecked.
When the engine oil light appears on your dashboard, it doesn’t always mean that your levels are simply low, it could also indicate that your oil is dirty or that there’s a leak. Either way, when you see this, it’s time for an oil change.
Some car owners opt to change their oil themselves, but if you don’t want to get your hands dirty this is a quick operation that can be done right at your local dealership. Be sure to keep your oil fresh and full to avoid larger problems down the road, and remember to consult your service warranty whenever your car needs maintenance—a lot of costly maintenance can be covered by your manufacturer’s service warranty.
Much like your engine oil, your coolant level light will appear on the dashboard when the coolant or antifreeze tank sensor drops below a certain threshold. Most likely, this could be from a leak or damage in the tank. This is one of the warning lights that you’ll want to respond to pretty quickly, as an overheating engine can cause some serious issues with your car.
If your coolant level light turns on, it’s smart to pull over or stop your car as soon as you can. Let your engine cool down before investigating the issue—this warning symbol is telling you that the engine is very hot, so don’t touch it! After you’ve given the engine time to cool off, you can take a look under the hood, refill the coolant levels and check for any leaks or damage.
Leaks, holes and other damage to your coolant system can be hard to identify, especially to the untrained eye. If, after letting your engine cool down and refilling the coolant, the light still appears, you should visit your dealership’s service department and let them investigate the problem.
Anti-lock braking system
If you see the ABS symbol appear on your dash, it could mean multiple things:
- Broken sensors. Your vehicle uses wheel speed sensors to determine how fast each individual wheel is turning. If it detects one wheel moving at a rate that’s dramatically different from the others, it will activate the anti-lock braking system warning light.
- Malfunctioning ABS module. Much of your ABS system relies on your car’s internal technology and self-diagnostic system. A simple glitch in this system can cause the warning light to trigger.
Since there are so many ways to trigger the ABS dashboard warning light, you’ll want to run through this short checklist and try to find the cause of the problem. However, if the problem persists or you discover serious damage, it’s always best to bring the car in for professional care.
Unlike the other warning symbols in this list, the traction control light can sometimes be a sign that your vehicle is actually working properly. If you see this light appear on your dashboard it’s sometimes just a sign that your car has activated its traction control to help you safely maintain control on a slippery road. Usually, the light will appear and disappear when you go through treacherous terrain. If that’s the case, then you have nothing to worry about.
However, if this warning light remains on your dash when you’re on a dry road or fully parked, then it’s a sign that something in your traction control system could be damaged. It could also simply be switched off—look for a physical switch or button that toggles the traction control off/off, or try restarting your car. If the issue persists, stop by your local service center and have them investigate the issue before it turns into a bigger problem.
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