What do your dashboard warning lights mean?

Vehicle dashboard warning lights are there to tell you something is wrong with your vehicle and to allow you to react before your vehicle begins to function abnormally, or suffers a full-on breakdown.

How many times have you driven past stricken vehicles by the roadside, or on the motorway hard shoulder, with occupants pacing on the verge trying to contact their roadside breakdown recovery provider? It’s a stressful picture – and a situation that can often be avoided by listening and responding quickly to any warning signals from your vehicle’s instrument display.

Dashboard lights are typically three colours, the ‘traffic light’ system, of green, amber and red. This is what they can mean:

Green: That particular system is functioning correctly, or is currently in use.

Amber: Something isn’t functioning as it should and will need to be looked at and checked.

Red: There is something wrong with the vehicle that is serious and potentially dangerous in the immediate term. When safe to do so, stop driving.

What areas do dashboard warning lights cover?

Modern vehicles use much more developed electronic software than in previous decades, so there are a lot of areas in a typical vehicle that are monitored by management lights. Here are some of the most important symbols to understand:

Tyre pressure: this is a symbol of two curved vertical lines with a horizontal bottom line, and an exclamation mark in the middle of them, imitating a flattened tyre on the pressure point touching the ground. Tyre pressure can be set in many vehicles so that the vehicle’s trip computer knows if it falls below the desired or set pressure, and can alert the driver with this symbol in front of them in the instrument display, sometimes backed up by a virtual mock-up of the vehicle in its infotainment system.

Battery: Showing a rectangular battery with positive ‘+’ and negative ‘-‘ electrodes, the battery symbol commonly appears in red and will give you a clear indication why your vehicle hasn’t started! This could mean needing to jump-start your vehicle, or could be a sign of an overall battery problem. If the problem persists, the battery could need replaced.

Oil pressure/oil levels: shaped like an oil can with a drop of oil from the spout, the oil level warning light is normally coloured red given the oil’s essential function in the vehicle. There’s not enough oil in the vehicle then the engine’s lubrication suffers, which could lead to burning or charring in the engine system. This can have a long-term detrimental effect on the vehicle’s health.

On seeing a warning light for engine oil, you should stop the car and check under the engine for any leaks, and if there are none, replenish the oil level within the oil tank. The warning light should go off and you will be fine to continue your journey.

If the problem persists, and the engine warning light keeps appearing, be sure to take the vehicle to a professional garage, to be examined by a vehicle technician.

Airbags: also known as a Supplemental Restraint System (SRS) warning light, a symbol showing a seated vehicle cabin occupant – driver or passenger – with a large circle in front of them, to symbolise a vehicle airbag, is one of the most important safety tools in a modern vehicle, minimising contact with hard cabin surfaces at speed in the event of a collision.

A red light with this symbol means that at least one part of the SRS system isn’t functioning properly, which can have serious implications in the event of the faulty vehicle’s collision when on the road. Worse still, faulty airbags could even deploy unexpectedly while the vehicle is on the move and cause an accident where there otherwise there was little danger.

It’s vital, therefore, that on seeing this symbol, you get the vehicle’s SRS system checked out by a professional, immediately.

Engine management light: Also known as the check engine or ECU warning light, the engine management light could hint at one or several faults within the engine system itself, from sensor issues to problems with the vehicle’s catalytic converter.

Get engine management light situations checked immediately, otherwise you risk doing greater damage to your car.

So, when in your vehicle and either preparing to set off on a journey, or mid-drive, and you see a symbol light up in the instrument dashboard in front of you, think whether it’s a green, yellow or red symbol; that will determine your course of action and how urgently you need to act to repair it.

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Image credit: Header image by ruslanshramko via iStock