How awesome would it be if us humans had warning lights that would glow when something is wrong with our bodies? Blood pressure too high or too low – the BP light turns on. Aha! It’s clear what I need. I’ll immediately take a medicine to adjust the pressure and go visit a doctor as soon as possible.
Although there are no lights, our bodies have their ways to show some symptoms. But it’s not always easy to interpret them. Even a common headache can have hundreds of reasons that only doctors are able to determine.
That’s why you should appreciate the fact that your car has all those dashboard lights. They may sometimes seem annoying, but at least you get to know how bad the problem is and where to search for it.
Of course, not every tiny little issue is being registered by dashboard lights. If it were, imagine all the mess in your head! If there was so much information, we might as well be driving an airplane.
But there are a few lights that are essential to acknowledge. That’s why we decided to help you learn what to do when they come on.
Just one more remark before we dive in:
Never panic. However serious these problems may be, this is not a reason to crush the brake pedal. There’s no place for panic when you’re in traffic. Drive carefully and slowly until the first opportunity to pull over safely.
1) Engine or service engine soon light
This light doesn’t specify the nature of the problem. It just indicates that something is wrong with the engine. It can be related to emission, exhaust system, loose gas cap, or even failed spark plugs. The engine is the heart of a car. Just like with a human heart, all kinds of issues within other organs can affect its functionality.
Not all of these repairs are expensive. But you won’t know exactly where the problem lives until you visit the mechanic.
Depending on the type of fault, this light can be flashing, steady, or even different colors like the traffic lights.
If the light is flashing, find an exit, stop the car and call a mechanic or a towing service, because you won’t be able to solve this on your own, and it’s usually a more serious issue that can cause damage if you continue to drive for too long. If it’s on solid, either amber or red, make an appointment to have it looked at as soon as possible. There is only one engine light and if you leave it too long you won’t know if something else is going wrong in addition to the original cause that turned the light on first.
2) Temperature light
It is usually signified by a red thermometer.
You will have noticed that it goes on for a couple of seconds every time you turn your engine on. But what if it doesn’t go off, or suddenly illuminates during the drive?
The engine does produce an enormous amount of heat while working, but it must never overheat. The engine coolant is responsible for keeping this cool under the hood.
One thing is important to remember when it comes to the coolant: it should never run out. If the level is lower than it should be, it is most probably the consequence of a leak somewhere in the cooling system. If you ignore the overheating warning sign and keep on driving, you might end up with your engine severely damaged – and that could be a very costly repair!
A leak of some kind isn’t the only thing that could happen to the coolant. It can fail to do its job because over time it gets contaminated with rust or debris.
So, spare the gas pedal and pull off the road where it’s convenient. Inspecting the situation isn’t hard – once the engine cools off, you just need to check the fluid level on the coolant reservoir. If it is below the minimum, pour some more coolant and go back to driving. In a pinch you can use water to top off the coolant, just be sure to let your mechanic know so he can test the coolant strength and make sure it will be good for the cold weather.
Engine overheating is a serious issue, if your vehicle continues to overheat or if there is any doubt about driving any further, call a tow truck.
3) Oil pressure light
Things aren’t simple here either.
There are two options, basically.
Either the engine has run low on oil, or there is not enough oil pressure.
The oil level is easy to check with the built-in dipstick, on most vehicles. With the vehicle off, you should pull it out, wipe it off and put it back in. After you bring the stick back out again, you should be able to see if the level matches the mark engraved on the dipstick. Replenishing the level is simple, just find the oil cap on top of the engine and add the oil (see your owner’s manual for details about the type of oil and where to add it). Some newer vehicles, such as BMW, do not have oil dip stick, its monitored by an onboard computer. In this case, you check the level through your dashboard information display, you will have to consult your owner’s manual for directions.
If the dashboard lamp doesn’t go off even after you have confirmed and remedied any oil level issues, then the pressure is the issue. Pouring more oil won’t solve the problem, and driving could be dangerous.
Another indicator of low oil pressure is if your motor sounds particularly noisy.
So, just call a towing company and go to your mechanic.
4) Tire pressure light
This one either reads TPMS (which is an acronym for Tire Pressure Monitoring System) or looks like a tire with an exclamation mark.
It is much harder to control the car with the under- or overinflated tires, which might have disastrous effects. So when this light goes on, the first thing you gotta do is, of course, to stop the car and inspect all the tires with a gauge.
But how do you know which pressure is best for your tires?
Here is the catch. The number embedded in the tire itself is not the recommended pressure – it is the maximum pressure.
You should look for the info engraved on your door jamb, or in your owner’s manual, as every car model has its own standards.
So, you will have to inflate and carefully observe how quickly is the tire going to leak again. Depending on the severity of the damage, you might want to tow to the nearest service or try to plug the tire by yourself. The latter being, of course, just a temporary solution.
Just like anything in life, prevention is the best cure. Inspect your tire pressure regularly, which means on a monthly basis. This warning light’s purpose isn’t to remind you to inflate your tires, but to warn you that you mustn’t go on.
5) Battery light
Since the battery is what supplies your car with electricity, a ruined battery means not being able to start the engine. Or listen to some music. Or charge your phone.
So, if the battery light goes on while you’re driving, turn off all of your gadgets that feed on your car battery, and start looking for an escape route from the highway. Chances are you won’t be able to start the engine after the next pause. Most good batteries will give you 30-45min of running time before they go dead, and depending on how many items are drawing power.
The culprit may be the battery itself. They just tend to wear out every two to five years, and that’s a natural process of decay. But something could be rotten or corroded within the alternator or the wiring system.
If you are nearby your mechanic, head straight there, otherwise find a safe place and get your vehicle towed. Without the charging system working your vehicle WILL stop running without notice, better to be safe than sorry.
6) Brake light
It probably happened to all of us when we were young drivers. You start the vehicle and wonder why the hell does it work with so much trouble. And why doesn’t this light turn off? And then you realize you didn’t release the parking brake.
But if this isn’t the reason for that brake light glowing, it is very likely that your brake system has a fault and should be looked at as soon as possible.
The brake light can come on for several reasons: Electrical failure, worn or out parts, or a fluid leak.
Unless you just had your brakes serviced, you should never have to top up the brake fluid. The brake fluid system is sealed and does not evaporate, the level will naturally drop as your brakes wear out, and after servicing it will automatically rise. If your brake pedal is soft, and the level is low in the reservoir, you may have a fluid leak, in which case the only safe thing to do is call the mechanic.
If the brakes are running low on fluid, you will most probably feel that the car doesn’t stop or slow down as efficiently as it normally does. Also, you will feel it in the brake pedals and how they work.
One warning, if you do have to top up the fluid, make sure you use the correct type as contamination from the wrong fluid will lead additional damage. The wrong fluid can cause damage that will drive up your repair costs.
7) Airbag light or SRS
Although this light will not prevent you from driving your vehicle, the airbag or Safety Restraint System will no function in case of a vehicle collision.
This light indicates a problem with airbags or safety restraints.
The only thing you can do when this light comes on is take it in for an inspection. Newer vehicles come with many safety components, crash sensors, modules and so on, each is vital and can save a life.
This is a question safety, so check it out with a mechanic as soon as possible.
… Plus a zillion other lights…
The reason why people tend to ignore the dashboard lights is that there is a bunch of them, and understanding them demands some effort on your side.
There is an ABS light, which means that your anti-lock braking system is not operating correctly. The hazard triangle warning means that your four-way signals are on. Beams, fuel, front fog lights, windscreen washer fluid, windscreen defrost, rear window defrost… So many of them that we have to give up explaining each and every one.
Just kidding. Actually, there is no need for that, as those lights don’t indicate a problem. Their sole purpose is to remind you that every function should be turned off when not necessary anymore.
Do you have the habit of ignoring the dashboard lights? Let us know in the comment section. (We can keep a secret, you know.)