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  • Writer's pictureHeather L. Lee

By The Dashboard Lights- Part 1

Updated: May 8

Have you ever glanced at your dashboard and seen a light that made you feel like you were losing at Pictionary? Me either.


Those lights are your vehicle’s way of communicating with you. Some of the indicators are simple to understand and some aren’t. Today’s mission is to go over those dastardly lights and what they mean.


The Important Ones


I mean, ALL the lights are pretty important. But these are the ones that spell doom for you if ignored.


Check Engine:

This light usually looks like an engine silhouette, but sometimes appears as CHECK ENGINE in all caps. The check engine light can be annoying because it doesn’t tell you what is wrong. Don’t panic if you see it, but don’t ignore it either. This light pops on for anything from a loose wire or fuel cap to a serious engine problem. However, if the light comes on and is flashing- that is your sign that there could be a catalyst damaging misfire happening. Do not drive the car if this happens!


If your vehicle seems to be running normally, make an appointment to have your automotive repair technician check it out to see what the problem is. If your vehicle is not performing as usual, pull over and call a tow truck. You don’t want to make anything worse and/or compromise your own safety.


Brake System:

This light is bright red for a reason. Brakes are important. Occasionally, this light comes on because the driver has accidentally started driving with the parking brake on. In this case, stop and remove the brake. If this isn’t the case, there could be an issue with the brake fluid, worn brake pads, or another concerning component of the brake system. Have your brakes serviced ASAP.


On a similar note, the ABS light may come on when there is a problem with the vehicle’s anti-lock braking system. If this light is glowing, there could be an issue that stops the ABS system from engaging. While it is still safe to drive without your ABS system, it is highly recommended to get it back in working order quickly. The ABS system is vital to braking, especially in a high stress situation.


Just to make things interesting, in some vehicles the red brake light illuminates whenever the ABS light comes on. Also, some European cars have a similar looking red light, but that light warns about brake pads specifically.  



Oil Pressure:

Here is another bright red light. This one means that the oil pressure is low. And if the oil pressure is low, your engine is not getting any oil. Which is bad.


Driving around with this light on is a great way to have a piston break off after a few minutes of driving and shoot straight through your engine block, causing a 10-inch hole and stopping your car in the middle of a busy road at 9 o’clock at night. That may sound oddly specific because it is. It happened to 16-year-old me. Don’t be like 16-year-old me. Do not drive with this light on.


If this light is yellow (and sometimes has a squiggly line underneath it), it means that the oil level is low. High oil pressure could indicate that your oil just needs a top up. Check your oil level before adding any. Only add oil if the level is low. Too much oil can also cause high pressure. If you add some oil and the light disappears, great! If not, or if it comes back on shortly after you added oil- get that checked out. It could mean something much more serious like an oil leak or damaged oil pump.



Nope, that isn’t an adorable robot winking at you. It’s the battery system crying out for help. This light indicates low voltage which is usually a problem with the charging system. The battery itself may be fine.


This bright red light may come with a side of whirwhirwhir as you try to start your car and the engine doesn’t respond. Even if the engine starts as usual, this light means you should have the charging system and battery checked out before you are left with a dead engine after a long day at work.




For some reason, all I can see is a turtle waving at me. As lighthearted as that seems, paying attention to this light can save lives. It’s common for this bright red light to flash on as the vehicle is first started and then switch off. If it stays on, you should be concerned about a problem within the service restraint system.


The service restraint system is made up of crash sensors, seatbelts, occupant detectors, and airbags. The problem could be in any of these components. But if it doesn’t switch off, you should have the car examined. In the case of an accident, you really want that entire system in full working order. So, if the light is on- go get it fixed. And don’t crash on your way there.


Some vehicles have a similar light (the occupant detector), usually orange or yellow that indicates when a seat has enough weight on it to engage the airbag in case of an accident. If you notice it doesn’t illuminate when someone is in that seat, have it looked at by your automotive technician.



Coolant Temperature:

Ah, finally a soothing blue color. After all these super important lights, I figured we could all use a break. This light means…essentially nothing. It will flash on to let you know that your engine has not yet reached normal operating temperature. So, hold out for a bit longer before flipping on the heater.


However, if you see this icon flash on in RED,  it means that your coolant temperature is too high, and the engine is overheating. It may mean that you have a broken water pump, a coolant leak, or damage to the radiator itself. Not cool. Do not keep driving with this light on. You run the risk of some very expensive repairs if you do.



Part 2 is on its way- after that you’ll kill it at Pictionary!



Tell me your dashboard light adventures in the comments. I’d love to hear them!



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