Car warning lights: What your car's trying to tell you

Car warning lights: What your car's trying to tell you
Ever been driving along, minding your own business, when suddenly a light pops up on your dashboard?
Heart skips a beat.
Is it just a friendly reminder? Or a "pull over NOW" emergency? Even seasoned drivers can be left scratching their heads.
One thing's for sure – ignoring these lights can lead to costly repairs or, even worse, jeopardize your safety.
In this guide, we'll break down the most common car dashboard lights and their meanings so you’re always sure how to respond.
Note: Car brands sometimes love to put their own spin on things. The exact colors and meanings of warning lights can vary between vehicle manufacturers and models. For example, some Saab warning light symbols might differ from ones in Toyota. If you're looking for the easiest way to decode your car warnings, check OBDeleven

Types of dashboard lights

Different dashboard light colors aren't there just for show. This color-coded system is like the universal language of cars. Each hue gives you a quick snapshot of what's going on under the hood.
Green or blue lights: Green lights are like a clear thumbs-up, indicating systems are active and working. Blue lights signal active features but might serve as reminders, too – like the high beam indicator reminding you to lower beams for oncoming traffic.
Yellow or orange lights: Think of these as a friendly heads-up. They're signaling that something might need your attention soon. It's not an immediate red flag but worth noting your next pit stop. If they start blinking, take a closer look shortly. 
Red lights: On your dashboard, an urgent alert will typically be red. It’s like the universal sign for "Stop!", meaning something's off, and it needs your attention right away. Pull over when it's safe. 
Note: Some of your car dashboard lights, like Brake Warning or Oil Pressure Warning, might change from yellow to red if the issue gets worse. 
Get car reader  

Green and blue lights: All systems go  

High beam indicator 
Can I drive? Yes. Just be courteous to other drivers. 
What it means: When high beams are activated, the symbol on the dashboard is typically a light beam with lines extending forward. This means your high beams are shining bright.
They're perfect for those pitch-black roads but can blind other drivers. Be a good road neighbor and always switch to low beams when you see oncoming traffic or drive in well-lit areas.
Traction control light 
Can I drive? Yes.
What it means: This light is about grip and control. If it's blinking, your car's helping you stay steady on slippery roads or sharp turns. But if it stays on under normal conditions, the system might be disabled, or a sensor might be acting up. While not urgent, a quick check will ensure smooth rides ahead.
Adaptive cruise control
Can I drive? Yes.
What it means: Think of it as cruise control 2.0. It automatically adjusts your speed, keeping a safe distance from the car ahead.
But if the light stays on, flashes unexpectedly, or doesn't engage when you try, there might be an issue with the sensors, cameras, or the system itself. See a mechanic for a quick check then. Often, cleaning or recalibration will help.
Automatic shift lock or engine start indicator
Can I drive? If the light stays on, you won’t be able to shift out of "Park" or start the engine. 
What it means: Automatic shift lock prevents vehicles from accidentally moving while starting. The light indicates you need to press the brake pedal to shift out of "Park" or start the engine.
If it's always on or flashes, there might be a glitch with the brake switch or the automatic transmission. While it's not an immediate danger, it's best to get it checked for smooth gear transitions.

Yellow and orange lights: Time for a check-up

Tire pressure monitoring system (TPMS)
Can I drive? Yes, but check the tires soon.
What it means: Tire pressure is crucial for fuel efficiency, tire lifespan, and safety. If this light's on, one or more of your tires might be under-inflated. Changing tires or cold weather can also cause tire pressure to drop.
Check the pressure in all of them and inflate as needed. If the light persists, there might be a leak or a faulty sensor.
Engine warning light (Check Engine)
Can I drive? Yes, but scan with a diagnostic tool ASAP to see how serious the issue is.
What it means: Something's up with your powertrain. It could range from minor issues to severe problems. Common triggers include:
  • A malfunctioning oxygen sensor
  • A loose or damaged fuel cap
  • A bad spark plug
While you don't need to pull over immediately while it’s yellow, you should still take action – a diagnostic tool can pinpoint the issue. A visit to the mechanic will help to rectify the problem.
Further Reading: Check Engine Light
Blind spot indicator light

Can I drive? Yes, but be cautious.
What it means: This one's watching your back... or rather, your side. When a vehicle enters your blind spot, this light gives you a heads-up.
If it's constantly on, dirt or debris might be blocking your radar sensors. Though it could be a system malfunction, too.  
While it's a handy tool, always trust your own judgment. Keep an eye on those mirrors and consider a check-up if the light stays on.
Lane departure warning
Can I drive? Yes, but be cautious.
What it means: Drifting lanes? This flashing light's your nudge to stay on track. If the light's on, the system is active and monitoring the lane markings. Some advanced systems might even gently steer the back to its lane.
If it's illuminating too often or not at all, the system might need recalibration, or there might be an issue with the camera/sensors detecting the lane markings.
Forward collision warning
Can I drive? React immediately. You most likely need to stop.
What it means: This one uses a combination of cameras, radar, and sometimes lidar to warn you of a potential collision with the vehicle or obstacle in front.
If it detects a possible crash – say, if the car in front suddenly brakes – it will alert you with visual, audible, or even tactile warnings (like seat vibrations). Some advanced systems can even initiate automatic emergency braking if you don't react in time.
If it's alerting you too often or not at all, the sensors might be obstructed, or a system could malfunction. Schedule a check-up soon.
Anti-Lock Braking System (ABS) warning
Can I drive? Yes, but get it checked soon.
What it means: ABS helps you steer and prevents wheel lock-up during hard braking. If this light's up, the ABS might not be functioning. While your regular brakes will still work, the vehicle might not handle a hard braking scenario as effectively. It's best to get this checked sooner rather than later.
Clogged air filter
Can I drive? Yes, but take action when you can.
What it means: Engines need a constant flow of clean air to operate efficiently. This light indicates that an air filter might be clogged or dirty. This can reduce fuel efficiency and engine performance. This is a reminder to clean up or replace the air filter.
Low fuel indicator light
Can I drive? Yes, but only for a short time.
What it means: Your fuel tank is running low. It's a gentle nudge to remind you to refuel soon. Depending on your car, you might have anywhere from 20 to 80 miles left, but it's best not to push your luck.
Running your car on a shallow tank can cause the fuel pump to overheat or wear out prematurely.
Electronic Stability Control (ESC) warning
Can I drive? Yes, but with caution.
What it means: The ESC system helps you maintain control of your car in slippery conditions or during sharp turns. It detects and reduces loss of traction.
If the light flashes, it means the system's actively working. If it stays on, the system might be off, or there's a malfunction. While you can drive, it's best to do so cautiously and get it checked soon.
Service vehicle soon
Can I drive? Yes, but schedule a service appointment.
What it means: It's a general alert that something needs your attention. It could be the engine, transmission, or another system. While it's not an emergency, getting your vehicle inspected is an excellent idea to prevent potential issues down the road.
Washer fluid indicator light
Can I drive? Yes.
What it means: Your windshield washer fluid is running low. It's especially crucial during winter or in muddy conditions. You'll want to top your washer fluid reservoir. It's a simple DIY task, but any service station can assist if you're unsure.  
Airbag warning light 
Can I drive? Yes, but schedule a check-up soon. 
What it means: There's a glitch in the airbag system. While it doesn't mean the airbag will deploy unexpectedly, it might not activate in a crash. Don't put yourself at risk and see a mechanic about this airbag warning light.

Red dashboard car lights meaning: Your car's SOS

Engine temperature warning light
Can I drive? No. Pull over when it's safe.
What it means: Your engine's getting too hot. It could be low coolant, a malfunctioning radiator, or a faulty thermostat.  
Pulling over, turning off the car for a while, and checking the coolant level when the engine cools down is best. If you continue driving, it might cause severe engine damage.
If the engine temperature light persists after you turn the car back on, it's time to schedule a mechanic visit.
Oil pressure warning light
Can I drive? No. Pull over and turn off the engine when it’s red. If yellow, you can drive; just check the oil soon. 
What it means: This is a blaring alarm. It's signaling that the oil isn't circulating through the engine, which can lead to severe damage. It could be due to an oil leak, a faulty oil pump, or a blockage in the oil filter or strainer. 
Stop the car safely, turn off the engine, and check the oil level. If the oil isn't low, you might be looking at a bigger issue. It's best to get professional eyes on this ASAP.
Brake warning light
Can I drive? Yes if it’s just the handbrake. If not, drive cautiously. Pull over when safe if it turns red.
What it means: This light is a hint. It could be as simple as a handbrake engaged. If it's not that, it might mean worn-out brake pads or brake fluid running low. 
If topping up the fluid or disengaging the parking brake doesn't help, see the mechanic ASAP. Otherwise, it might compromise your ability to stop. 
Battery charge warning
Can I drive? No. Pull over when it’s safe.
What it means: This indicates a potential issue with your vehicle's charging system. It could be a failing alternator, a loose belt, or even a dying battery.
It's not immediate panic mode, but if the light stays on, you should get your car checked before it decides to take an unplanned break.
Transmission temperature warning
Can I drive? No. Pull over if it’s red. If yellow, continue driving, but take a look soon.
What it means: Your transmission fluid is having a meltdown. This fluid's temperature is crucial for the smooth operation of the gears.
This can happen due to low fluid levels, towing heavy loads, or continuous aggressive driving. It's best to pull over, let the car idle to cool down the transmission, and check the fluid level.

How to minimize red lights (and keep your car healthy)

You learned a lot about car warnings and what they mean. Some are friendly heads-up, and some call for immediate action. 
There's something you can do to prevent the latter, actually:
Schedule routine checks 
Just as we need regular health check-ups, our cars crave routine checks, too. Simple actions like checking fluid levels, tire pressure, and brake pads can keep those alarming lights off your dashboard.
Understand your vehicle
Manuals can be a lifesaver, but let's face it, they're not the most user-friendly. They are key to understanding your vehicle's warning lights and recommended actions.
But who wants to sift through pages when you need a quick answer?
Luckily, there isn't much smart tech couldn't do today.
Use smart tools
Tools like the OBDeleven NextGen device are your modern-day manual, but smarter. Think of it as your pocket-sized mechanic that connects to your OBD2 port and pairs with your smartphone.
OBDeleven scans your vehicle for potential faults and gives in-depth diagnostics. Then, it clearly communicates the problem, its root cause, and the next steps. And it all happens in minutes.
It's like having a translator of your car's language by your side. Ready to give it a try?