Every time you get into your car, you’ll probably notice an array of symbols light up on the dashboard just before you turn the ignition. Depending on the car, there could be only 4 or 5 symbols lighting up during vehicle startup. Some newer and more expensive cars with a lot more features may have up to 10 of these symbols lighting up at the same time.
Often these symbols go away once the engine starts running. But, what if one or some of the lights stay on even after you started the car? Worse yet, a bunch of lights turns on while you’re driving around? Do you know what they mean and what’s happening with your vehicle?
Don't panic when you see any of these light up while driving. Here's a a quick rundown of some of the most common dashboard symbols mean.
Check Engine Light
The check engine light or CEL is probably the most common dashboard light that could come on at any time and in any vehicle, be it new or old. Depending on the make and model of vehicle, this symbol could vary in shape and color. In some cars, it might be a visible symbol that reads ‘CHECK ENGINE’ which flashes or comes on inside the gauge cluster. However, it is more commonly seen in vehicles as a yellow engine symbol that turns on or flashes when something is wrong with the engine.
We can’t really tell you what’s wrong when the check engine light comes on because there are a number of possibilities and varies from vehicle to vehicle. From simply having an airflow socket unplugged, to a broken O2 sensor, or your engine misfiring, the possibilities are endless. The best thing to do when you encounter a check engine light in your vehicle is to have it diagnosed at the dealership or your trusted mechanic. They can then tell you what is actually wrong and how to fix it.
As the symbol implies, the battery warning light often indicates that there is a problem with the car’s battery. A useful indicator especially for cars that do not come with standard with a volt meter. However, it could also indicate that there is a problem with the car’s electrical system, specifically, the alternator.
The best thing to do when the battery light comes on would be to check both the battery and alternator. With the batter, the unit fitted in your car could be old and no longer holds charge. As for the alternator, a belt might have snapped or come loose. Worse yet, the alternator itself no longer works and the car is running on battery power alone. Of course, if it disappears after you start it, then you're all good.
Hot or cold temperature light
Not all cars come standard from the factory with a needle style temperature gauge nowadays. Instead, some manufacturers install a small temperature light on the gauge cluster to show drivers whether the water temperature is hot, cold or just normal. If you’re wondering what it looks like, it's the symbol that looks like a flag pole floating on water.
If you just started the car in the morning, it will probably show the blue temperature symbol. This symbol tells drivers that the car is still not in proper operating temperatures, and should be given time to warm up before being driven. Usually, the blue water temperature symbol only lasts for around a minute or two, and automatically goes away once the car has warmed up.
The more serious issue would be the red temperature gauge, which indicates that the car is overheating. Stop the car and try to cool it down before driving again. If this happens, your car might not have water or coolant in the system, or it could be something more serious like a puncture in the radiator.
Oil Pressure Light
No, that’s not a genie lamp on your dashboard. Don’t expect it to grant you wishes either when that symbol lights up as it is the oil pressure light. When on, it is actually an indication that there is a problem with your engine, specifically, your engine oil lines. Much like the check engine light, having the oil pressure light on could mean a few things. One of the most common reasons it turns on is that there is simply not enough oil in the system, telling the vehicle owner to top up. If it doesn't disappear, it's time to consult a mechanic.
Most vehicles nowadays come standard with anti-lock brakes or ABS. With that, you’ll probably see an ABS light in the gauge cluster as well which usually lights up before you start the car and disappear right after. If the ABS light turns on while driving, it means that there is a problem with the car’s ABS. For those wondering, having the ABS light on will not affect normal braking when driving. Rest assured that your vehicle will still stop and go as it usually does. However, you have to be more careful should you suddenly decide to slam on the brakes as you could lock the brakes and lose control.
Much like the ABS light, the airbag light is found on cars equipped with an airbag. Depending on the vehicle, the airbag light could either be a symbol of an airbag in front of the passenger or the SRS light. As the name implies, there is likely a problem with your vehicle's airbag system, be it the sensor, seatbelt. Having this light on while driving may cause it the airbag not to deploy in an accident. Bring your car to the dealership or mechanic should you see this light constantly lit.
When the fuel light turns on, it should be a no brainer. It literally means you’re running out of gas. Even though some cars do have a reserve once the fuel light comes on, it doesn’t mean you should try going far without gassing up first. The last thing you’d want to experience is running out of gas in a place without a gas station nearby.
Driving at night, you’ll probably notice that car’s headlight shines brighter when the blue headlight symbol lights up on the cluster. At the same time, other drivers, particularly those headed towards you, will probably keep flashing their high beams at you. That’s because you have the high beam on. Just because it helps you drive at night doesn’t mean you should drive all the time with your high beam on because other people will get irritated or won’t be able to see.
Parking Brake Light
The parking brake light or more commonly known as the hand brake light turns on when you engage the handbrake, foot brake or in newer cars the electronic e-brake. Depending on the vehicle it either has a "P" or an "!" symbol enclosed in a circle and parenthesis. The moment you disengage the parking brake; it should turn off. More importantly, however, is that you shouldn’t drive with your parking brake engaged. If you do try to drive with it on, you’ll probably notice the decrease in performance and something smelling a few kilometers down the road.
Much like the fuel light, the seat belt light is pretty much self-explanatory. If you aren’t wearing a seatbelt , this light will continue to blink and flash in front of your display. It will also produce an irritating sound in order to remind you to fasten the seat belt. In some newer cars, the light stays on when the front passenger isn't buckled up. As a reminder, always buckle up for safety.
There are times, however, that the seatbelt light remains on even while wearing a seatbelt. It is likely that there is a problem with one of the seatbelt latch sensors.
There are a lot more lights and symbols on the dashboard, but the ones we listed are the most common which can be found in almost all vehicles sold today. If your vehicle does have a light on the dashboard and we did not discuss it here, please do consult your owner’s manual.