Modern cars have an array of warning lights, covering issues from low fuel levels or a dead battery to serious engine problems. We explain everything you need to know about the symbols you might see on your vehicle’s dashboard.
If you’re about to set off on a long journey, the last thing you want to see is a strange car warning light on your car’s dashboard.
Today’s vehicles have complex computer systems keeping an eye on vital components. It’s likely there’s a dashboard warning symbol for pretty much every eventuality.
In some cases you might get an oil pressure light or a brake warning light. At other times you could be presented with a tyre pressure light or an ABS warning light.
This will probably tell you that your anti-lock braking system needs to be looked at.
Some of these car dashboard symbols and meanings, however, are harder to decipher than others.
That’s why we’ve put together this guide to help you understand what your vehicle is trying to tell you. Hopefully, this’ll also give you some idea of how urgently you need to act to address the issue.
Remember: you shouldn't ignore your warning lights. This is illegal, and you could end up invalidating your car insurance.
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Red dashboard lights
Engine oil pressure light
If you see this symbol pop up, the first thing to do is to stop your car – when possible and safe to do so – and switch off the engine.
Next, check your vehicle’s oil level by opening up the bonnet and using the dipstick in the oil inlet.
If the level is low, this is probably what’s causing the problem, so top up the oil level before going any further - or as soon as you can.
If, however, the oil level does not seem to be low, restart your car. If the oil pressure warning light doesn’t go out when you restart, stop the engine again and make a call for roadside assistance.
There may be a problem with lubricant reaching key parts of your engine, and this could lead to serious damage if it isn’t addressed quickly.
Engine temperature warning light
Most dashboards have an analogue temperature gauge to help you see how warm or cold your engine is at any time.
So always be on the lookout for the gauge creeping into the red zone. If your engine is overheating, the dashboard temperature warning light may also come on.
In either case, stop your car when and where it’s safe to do so and turn off the engine. Open up the bonnet and allow the engine to cool.
Then, check the coolant level. If this is low, you may have a leak. A serious leak means you will need to call a mechanic.
Don’t add cold water to an overheating engine as this can cause serious damage.
Battery warning light
This light indicates that your car’s battery is failing to receive a charge from the alternator.
This could be as a result of a problem with the alternator drive belt, for example. On some models of car, this drive belt is also responsible for the vehicle’s water pump.
And if water can no longer be provided where it is needed, you could experience an overheating engine. Again, this’ll require you to call for roadside assistance.
At the same time, the battery warning light could just mean there is a fault in your battery and that it needs replacing. Visit your local garage for a proper diagnosis.
Brake warning light
One of the most common reasons you might see the brake warning light is because you haven’t fully taken the handbrake off.
But if this light comes on when the handbrake is completely off, it could be a sign that your vehicle’s brake fluid level is low.
If that’s not the case, you could be facing a more serious mechanical problem.
Stop your car as soon as you safely can, but be aware that your vehicle’s ability to brake may be impaired – so be extra cautious.
This could be a sign of a major problem for your car so it’s vital you seek expert assistance before driving on.
Airbag warning light
If this dashboard light comes on, there is a fault with at least one of your car’s airbags.
As well as a driver’s airbag, there may be one on the passenger side and for the rear seats.
This should be checked out by a mechanic. In the meantime, you should be conscious that the airbag or airbags may not work if you’re involved in an accident.
You should therefore consider driving even more carefully.
It’s possible that the airbag warning light has illuminated because your airbags have been switched off manually, perhaps by accident.
Check your car’s manual to see how to turn them back on.
Power steering warning light
If this light stays on after you’ve started your engine, it could be that there is a fault in your car’s power steering system.
The first thing you should do is check it hasn’t been illuminated in error. Switch off the engine and take your key out of the ignition for a few seconds.
Switch the engine on again. If the light remains on, you should seek assistance as your car may not be safe to drive.
Amber dashboard lights
Check engine light
Of all your car warning lights, the check engine light is probably the one that is the most difficult to decipher.
This light can come on for a few reasons, all related to your car’s engine management system. It could signify that there’s a fault with anything from your starter motor to the fuel injection process.
You may or may not notice other symptoms if your check engine light comes on. For example, your car may suffer from reduced performance or the engine might sound unusual.
In some cases, you simply won’t be able to start your car.
On the other hand, your vehicle may appear to be running normally even when this light is illuminated. But don’t be lulled into a false sense of security.
The check engine light could indicate a serious issue and you should have it looked at by an expert as soon as possible.
If your check engine light is flashing, this indicates a serious problem that needs urgent attention.
ABS warning light
This light signifies that your anti-lock braking system (ABS) is having problems.
The good news is that your normal brake operations should be unaffected – but you could get into difficulties if you have to brake heavily, especially in wet conditions.
This is the kind of situation that ABS technology has been developed to deal with.
Your ABS warning light may come on for no clear reason. If it does illuminate, stop the car when possible, switch off the engine and remove the key from the ignition.
Wait a few moments then start the engine again, the light may turn off. If it doesn’t, you need to get your ABS system checked by a professional.
Tyre pressure light
Your car has sensors in each tyre to monitor the pressure of the air in each of them.
If the tyre pressure light comes on, it means that pressure in at least one of your tyres has fallen below the correct level.
Some car dashboards display the pressures for each tyre at the touch of a button, which can help you identify which tyre is running below pressure.
This should also give you an indication of how urgently you need to address the problem.
In some cases, the tyre in question may still be safe to drive on for a short while. If it has very low pressure or is flat, you’ll need to have the tyre re-inflated or replaced straight away.
If the problem isn’t as drastic as this, check the required pressure and then inflate the tyres to the correct pressure at the earliest opportunity.
Traction control light
If your traction control light flashes, it indicates that your car is using the system in response to road conditions.
For example, if you’re driving in rain, snow or very low temperatures.
However, if this sign is permanently on when you’re driving, this could mean your car’s traction control system has been switched off.
If you’ve checked the system is on and the light is still illuminated, this could mean you have a fault that you need to have checked out.
Brake pad wear warning light
If one or more of your car’s brake pads are starting to wear out, this is the warning sign you’ll see.
Worn down brake pads can severely impair your vehicle’s ability to stop so this is something you need to address as soon as you can.
When brake pads are completely worn away, you’ll hear an unpleasant metal-on-metal grinding noise when you brake.
But hopefully the situation will not reach this point as the brake-pad warning light should come on much earlier than that.
Model specific warning lights
While most of the symbols listed above are universal and can be found on most makes and models of car, they can sometimes vary from one manufacturer to another.
Below, we’ve included some links to different makes of car so you can check the warning lights for your particular model.
For Mini dashboard warning lights, click the link and then enter your vehicle identification number (VIN).
To find this look at the dashboard from the front of the car and the VIN can be found on the driver’s side.
It might also be situated at the bottom of the driver’s door. Once you've typed this number in, you can download the relevant manual.
This sets out all the dashboard warning lights you can expect to see.