Deciphering the Dashboard Light: What Your Car Is Telling You

Dashboard lights allow your car to speak to you. Some symbols are intuitive, and others are… less intuitive. Responsible drivers pay attention to the lights on their dash and act immediately when their car warns them about potential faults. However, many drivers ignore each dashboard light as if it was a McAfee software update reminder. Here are a few of the most common (and serious) dashboard symbols and what they signify.

As a disclaimer, this is a general guide that applies to most vehicles. However, your vehicle may use a slightly different design, or have a unique way of calling service items to your attention. Always consult your owner’s manual. It details all the symbols that appear on your dashboard and how to interpret them.

Dashboard Light Colour

It may seem obvious, but many people don’t realise that colour is an important part of interpreting dash warning signs. In general, green 

and blue lights are used to indicate that a system is active or working. Yellow symbols indicate that something requires your attention and likely needs to be serviced soon. Finally, red symbols indicate that there is a serious problem and your vehicle is in need of immediate attention.

Oil: Oil pressure dashboard light or 

If you see the oil can symbol on its own, it means your oil pressure is low. You may have an adequate amount of oil, but there could be a problemwith 

your bearings or oil pump. But if you see a wavy line beneath the symbol, it simply means the oil level is low. Wait, why is your oil level low? When is the last time you got an oil change? Or is there an ignored oil slick in the middle of your garage? I’m not mad, but I am disappointed.

Coolant:  or 

This symbol, which looks like a thermometer in water, refers to your engine’s temperature. If the symbol is red, it means your engine is too hot. Obviously, you should pull over and turn off the engine immediately to prevent serious damage. If the same dashboard light is blue it means that the coolant temperature is too low. This is probably less serious than the alternative, but you should still bring your vehicle in for service.

TPMS:  or 

This symbol is part of your tire pressure monitoring system. If you see the symbol, one of your tires is at least 25% below its ideal air pressure. If you see that symbol while you’re driving, pull over and check your air pressure. Your tire may be actively leaking. If not, you’re still at risk of a blowout, and having four tires is kind of important

Although, you should keep in mind that temperature fluctuations change air pressure. So, if you’re moving from the cold outdoors to a heated garage, the system may detect the change in pressure. In this situation it’s a good idea to check your tires, anyway. Their ideal pressure can be found on the sidewall of your tire or in the owner’s manual.

Battery:  or 

If you see the battery warning symbol you either have a depleted battery or a faulty alternator. Either problem will cause your vehicle to stop running in the near future. Fortunately, both are straightforward fixes. If you don’t know how to diagnose the difference between battery and alternator problems on your own, bring your vehicle in for service immediately.

Powertrain: 

Despite looking like a daisy with an exclamation point, this dashboard light is a pretty serious indicator. If you see this symbol, your vehicle’s computer has detected a problem with your powertrain. Of course, the powertrain is a complicated system that contains a number of parts, so it’s difficult to pin down exactly what the symbol is referring to. But, considering the system that moves your vehicle forward is pretty important, any issue should be taken seriously. Bring your vehicle in for service immediately.

Brake Pads:  Brake Fluid: 

These symbols refer to two of the most common brake problems. The first dashboard light, a circle surrounded by some curved dashes, refers to your brake pads. When the system detects that your brake pads have limited remaining life, it will trigger this warning symbol. Your brake pads are the friction material that presses against the brake rotor to bring your vehicle to a stop. Letting your brake pads wear completely will severely affect stopping distance. And, you’ll have metal on metal contact that will destroy your rotors and cost you more money.

The second symbol, a brake with some wavy liquid at the bottom, indicates that you have low brake fluid. Brake fluid transmits your foot pressure to the to the calipers in order to stop your car. If you didn’t have brake fluid your lines, you simply wouldn’t stop. Your system may be using a greater volume of brake fluid if your pads are worn out. Or you may have a leak somewhere in the brake system. Either warrants immediate service.

These are only a few of the many symbols that inevitably will pop up on your vehicle’s dash. It’s not necessary to memorise them all, but it is important to take them all seriously. Timely and preventative maintenance always saves you money down the road.

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