Understanding Your Car’s Dashboard Warning Lights

Modern cars and their dashboard warning lights make it easy for drivers without a technical background to troubleshoot problems. While dozens of indicator lights exist, there are eight fairly important ones worth familiarizing yourself with to increase safety on the road.

Check Engine

The motor-shaped Check Engine Light (CEL) or Malfunction Indicator Light (MIL) can be activated for literally dozens of reasons. It means that the Electronic Control Unit (ECU) of the vehicle has detected an engine performance flaw like a faulty oxygen sensor or spark plug in need of replacement.

Reduced Power

A check engine light with an exclamation point means that your car's ECU has purposely limited power output to prevent engine damage. If you see this indicator, have a qualified mechanic use an OBDII scanner to identify the precise cause immediately.

Oil Pressure

A dripping oil can icon indicates an oil pressure problem of some kind. It could mean that you've got an oil leak or that your engine is burning oil at an unusual rate. It could also indicate a malfunctioning oil pump.

Coolant Temperature

The "thermometer over wavy lines" symbol indicates abnormally high coolant temperatures. This can be caused by a radiator leak, corroded radiator coils, a broken fan or even a head gasket issue. Don't take any chances when the coolant warning light appears.

Transmission Temperature

A thermometer inside a gear icon indicates high transmission fluid temperatures. Most commonly, this light is the result of a transmission fluid leak or a radiator that isn't functioning properly. Be sure to check your transmission fluid level right away.

Charging System

Contrary to popular belief, the battery icon rarely means that your battery is about to die. Rather, it's a sign that the charging system isn't operating correctly. More often than not, an alternator on the verge of failure is the culprit.

Brake System

A circle bracketed by parentheses is a generic brake warning indicator caused by everything from worn pads to low fluid levels. The same symbol with "ABS" in the center indicates an Anti-Lock Brake malfunction that's best diagnosed with a code reader.

Tire Pressure Monitoring System

A U with an exclamation point in it indicates a problem with the tire-pressure monitoring system (TPMS) that most modern vehicles possess. Check your tire pressure immediately when this light comes on to rule out a harmless sensor glitch.

Knowing Is Half the Battle

Dashboard warning lights are powerful diagnostic tools in the hands of a car owner who understands what they mean. When an indicator light appears, it's best to find the cause as soon as possible. Even false alarms can uncover other problems in the making before they become a bigger issue.


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