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Decrypting Your Car’s Dashboard Lights

By H&H Admin

Your dashboard provides information about the health of your car in the form of various warning lights. It’s a good idea to know what each of these lights represent so that you can have the issue attended to sooner rather than later.

Your dashboard provides you with lots of information about the health of your car. Usually, when you start your car, all the lights on the dash come on but after a short while they automatically turn off again.

Sometimes one or more of the lights do not go off, indicating a problem within the engine. It is helpful to know what the warning light represents so that you can communicate effectively with a qualified technician.

Here are a few common warning lights which commonly come on and need to be attended to.

1. CHECK ENGINE warning light

Meaning: Often, this light goes on after you’ve started the engine but turns off after a few seconds. If however, the light continues to glow or comes on when you are driving, your car is communicating that a service is required.

Required action:  It’s alright to blue tick this message but you will need to attend to it within a day or two. Left unattended for too long, it will start blinking, at which point it would be highly recommended that you hightail it to your technician as soon as possible as flashing lights generally usually indicate a more serious problem, such as an engine misfire that could damage the catalytic converter.

Urgency:   Moderate.  Think of this as your toes pinching in your heels. You can grin and hobble as gracefully as you can across the room but make a beeline for the exit as soon as possible, and head for a maintenance workshop as soon as possible. 

2. ENGINE OIL warning light

Meaning:   This light indicates that either there isn’t enough oil in the engine, or that the oil pump is malfunctioning, (premium vehicles may have a separate light to warn that the oil level is getting low). Engine oil is important as it keeps engine surfaces lubricated, preventing unnecessary wear and tear to the metal components.

Required action:   If you notice the oil light on while you are driving, pull over immediately. Driving with low oil pressure or low oil in the system can ruin your vehicle’s engine, leading to a breakdown and putting you and other road users at risk.

Level of urgency:   Critical.   This is one warning light that should not be ignored! Think of it as having spinach on your teeth

3. BRAKES SYSTEM warning light

What it looks like:    A surprised circle holding its face.

Meaning:  This light could indicate one of 2 things: 

  1. You may have left the parking brake on (sometimes there’s a separate light with a “P” in the circle).
  2. There may be a problem with your brakes, such as loss of hydraulic pressure, low or leaking brake fluid, or excessively worn brake pads. Cars with antilock brakes have an amber or yellow warning light which usually says ABS across it.

Required action:    It goes without saying that your brakes are an integral part of your vehicle. So should the brake warning light illuminate and stay on, your car’s braking performance will be severely affected putting you and other road users at risk.

Level of urgency:     Life-threatening.  Think of this as someone snatching your wig and making like Usain Bolt with it. In other words, get your vehicle to the repair shop right now!

4. ENGINE TEMPERATURE warning light

What it looks like:    The letter E attached to a spoon floating in water

Meaning:  If your engine is dangerously hot, usually from a loss of coolant, this symbol lights up. 

Required action:      If you are driving when this warning light goes on, pull over safely as soon as possible and shut off the engine to let it cool down. When the light has turned off, you can drive the car again, but keep an eye out for the light to come on as it most likely will until the problem has been fixed. Even if you have to pull over every so often to let the engine cool down, it’s worth the hassle to help prevent the engine from overheating. Keep in mind that a low coolant level means a leak is present which needs to be remedied as soon as possible. Otherwise, your car will eventually be low on coolant again and run the risk of the engine getting overheated.

Important:    Never open the radiator cap on a hot engine. The radiator cap is designed to pressurise the system so that the water doesn’t boil as easily. Removing the cap from a hot engine will cause the coolant to start boiling and the steam will scald you badly.

Level of urgency:     Critical bordering on ICU status. Treat this on par with not sucking on an entire packet of breath mints after eating garlic bread at lunch time!


What it looks like:    A car that’s driven over a banana peel

Meaning:   Many traction control systems will illuminate the warning light when the system detects a loss of traction, like in snowy or rainy weather. Typically the light is seen when the system intervenes to maintain traction. If the traction control light illuminates and stays lit without blinking, this means that the traction control system has been deactivated, and there is no traction control available.

Required action:   The only way to properly resolve either of the above conditions is to have the vehicle properly diagnosed at a qualified repair shop. Always have the repair shop do a full computer systems scan. 

Level of urgency:   Critical but stable unless the rainy season has begun in which case, you should treat this warning as you would you phone with 1% battery life left in it.

Seeing one of your dashboard indicator lights pop up when you’re driving can be a little daunting, but by knowing what each symbol means you can save yourself from a lot of panic and money.  Make time to familiarise yourself with your vehicle owners’ manual to acquaint yourself with the basics of its operational systems.

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