14 Most Common Dashboard Lights and What They Mean
If a dashboard light or check engine light came on while you were driving and you don’t know what it means, you’ve come to the right place. Here we’ve compiled a list of possible “dash lights” or “car warning lights” you might see in many vehicles and what they typically mean.
The good news is that some of these lights mean simple fixes. However, there are lights that can indicate your vehicle needs serious attention, diagnostics, repair, and/or maintenance. Read on to discover the meanings of the most common car dash lights, maintenance lights, and check engine lights.
1. The Fog Lamp
Good news! The Fog Lamp indicator symbol means that your fog lights are on and power is being sent to them. This is one of a few lights on this list that do not mean there’s a problem with your vehicle. When you see the fog lamp indicator symbol come on, you either have automatic fog lights or you pressed the button to activate them yourself.
Unless your driving visibility is less than 100 meters, it’s best not to use fog lights. They can be distracting to the other drivers on the road. If you turned them on in error, reading your car's Owner’s Manual should tell you how to turn them off if you're not sure how.
2: Battery Symbol
Seeing this symbol on your vehicle's dash can be a real stress. Most likely, you’re also not able to start the car successfully or it died while driving. The good news is that while this light looks like a battery, your battery might not be the issue.
Reasons the Battery Light Will Illuminate:
- Your battery is dead or too low voltage to start the vehicle.
- Your battery cables are loose, the battery posts are too corroded, or the connection has been severed.
- If you have a manual transmission, stalling will cause this light to come on.
- Your serpentine belt may have snapped which prevents the alternator from charging the battery. If this is the issue, you will likely also have lost power steering.
- Your alternator is dead or not properly functioning and needs to be replaced.
- If the battery is the actual issue there are some things to look out for: dimming clock lights, dim headlights, your key FOB does not work, or a slow start at ignition.
In most cases, even if the battery is dying, a quick battery jump should get you driving long enough to get to a mechanic, auto parts store, or your home. Be sure to have the battery tested to help determine the issue. It’s a good idea to know the state of your battery by getting occasional tests. This is especially true if you plan to take a road trip in the near future.
3: Engine Temperature
This dashboard light is usually very serious. The engine temperature dash light means that your engine’s sensors detect that it has begun to overheat. If you continue to operate the engine at these temperatures, serious and permanent damage may occur. Some vehicles have a temperature gauge where you can track the engine temperature at all times. Other vehicles only have a solid color indicator to inform you whether the engine is at a normal temperature, it is heating up, or it is overheated.
Most of the time, overheating is caused by a failure of your vehicle’s coolant system. This can mean that a radiator hose is leaking, the radiator is broken or leaking, or that you have too low a level of coolant to cool the engine. If it is due to a coolant leak, you will likely see steam rising from your car’s hood and you will smell antifreeze evaporating.
If your car is overheating, slow down or stop driving altogether if you cannot get the temperature gauge to stay within optimal levels. If your coolant system is leaking, refill the radiator with antifreeze or water constantly and get to the nearest repair facility as soon as possible.
4: Tire Pressure Warning Light
This image is known as the TPMS or tire pressure monitoring system light. It lets you know that your tires have air pressure lower than the optimal level. However, there could be other reasons this light comes on in your dash.
1. Your TPMS batteries are low. Most modern cars have four TPMS batteries, one for each wheel. They tend to last anywhere from 5-10 years. If you've had your car for at least five years it might be time to replace the TPMS batteries. Just be sure to check the tires with an external gauge first to confirm whether they are low on air pressure. Your manual should tell you the amount of pressure your tires need. Your tires will list the maximum pressure: do not exceed this PSI when refilling.
2. It's cold outside. Have you ever baked a nice pie? It might have a slight dome when it first comes out of the oven due to hot air expanding inside the pie. But as it cools the dome flattens out. That's because the temperature has dropped and the air inside the pie cools down and contracts. The same happens with tires. For every 10 degrees the temp drops, you may lose 1-2 pounds (0.91 kg) of pressure. Like the pie, air isn’t leaking out readily. Instead, the cooling air inside the tire contracts.
When you see this light come on, check your tire pressure. If you're within 1-2 pounds (0.91 kg) per square inch of what your car manual recommends, you're fine. If not, you can easily add more air. You can tell the TPMS batteries are malfunctioning if you have the correct PSI but still see the light on your dash.
5: Oil Pressure Light
This light is serious! Seeing this light means there is an issue with the oil pressure in your car. Your oil pump could lack proper circulation to lubricate the services inside your car or, much worse, you're running low on oil. This is a light you shouldn't ignore. Stop driving if possible, and avoid driving fast or uphill. Check your oil level. If the oil is low, fill up and see if the light goes off. If it does, you’re probably okay to drive for now, but make sure there’s not a significant oil leak in your engine.
If your oil level is normal but the light stays on, take your car in for diagnostic service immediately.
6: Security Light
Most cars these days have a security system to prevent theft. Usually, the security light flashes once when you turn on the car to let you know it's working. If you see this beyond starting up your car, there might be an electrical issue. It's worth getting checked out -- before your car does something erratic like automatically lock the doors when you’re not ready.
7: Washer Fluid
If you see this on your dash, it means your car is low on windshield washer fluid. It's an easy fix that shouldn't be skipped especially if you have inclement weather in the forecast. You don't want to be on the road during a snowstorm and get your windshield covered in sand, dirt, and other road debris. Your car's Owner’s Manual should tell you the proper way to replace the windshield washer fluid.
8: Check Engine Light
This is the vaguest light of all. A check engine indicator coming on can be super scary no matter what vehicle you drive. We've all been there. You're driving down the road when suddenly you see it turn on in your trusted Corolla. The best thing to do when you see this is not to panic. More than any other dash light on this list, there are dozens of possible explanations for why this warning light came on.
Some issues are simple. For example: not tightening your gas cap after a refill can trigger this light. It’s a good idea to pull over and check this out first. This light will also come on when non-critical sensors like exhaust sensors stop functioning. While this won’t affect driving right away, it will stop you from passing most states’ emissions certification tests.
While not all reasons for a check engine light mean you need to stop driving right away, most of them will require a trained technician to diagnose and fix. If you've checked the gas cap and it's fine, get the rest of the engine checked right away. If the light flashes, skip the gas cap check and go straight for the mechanic. A flashing light means there could be something very wrong with your car and it needs professional attention right away.
9: Engine Start Indicator
Have you ever tried to start your car and nothing happened? That's most likely because you didn't engage the brake. You can easily tell if that's the case if you see the above symbol on your dash. Just engage the brake and attempt to restart the engine.
10: Airbag Indicator
Did you get in a crash? Did the airbag deploy? If so, seeing this light has an obvious explanation.
However, if you see the airbag indicator light come on without a crash or airbag deployment, it means that there is something wrong with the system as a whole or one of your airbags. For many vehicles, while this light is activated, the system will not deploy airbags in the event of a crash. If you find this light turned on, stop driving and get your vehicle to the mechanic ASAP.
11: Traction Control
Traction control is a safety feature that utilizes your car’s computer and specialized sensors to assist with traction in slippery and wet roads. In most vehicles, you can turn this feature off manually. However, turning it off can mean your vehicle has a harder time maintaining traction in poor road conditions including rain and snow. If the traction control light comes on without you turning it off, it could mean one of two things are happening:
- The system itself is malfunctioning.
- You're having issues with your ABS brakes.
Not all traction control systems also control the ABS brakes. If traction control comes on unprovoked, it is crucial that you get this checked out by a mechanic as soon as possible.
12: Low Fuel
This symbol is an easy one to diagnose. It means you're running low on gas and need to fuel up quickly. We don't recommend testing how long you can go without filling up, but many vehicles turn this light on when there are less than two gallons of fuel remaining. You don't want to be stranded on the side of the road with no gas. Fuel up as soon as you can when this symbol comes on.
13: The Seatbelt Reminder
Wear your seatbelt! While nothing is actually wrong with your car, you should still pay attention when this dashboard light comes on. This symbol means someone in your car is not wearing their seatbelt. They should! Seatbelts save lives.
According to the CDC there were 22,697 fatalities from car crashes in 2018. 60% of adults and teens who had died in those car crashes weren't wearing seatbelts. This is just one of the many good reasons why you should always wear your seatbelt while in a car.
14: Anti-Lock Brake Light
As we mentioned on the Traction Control light, the light above could mean something is off with your Anti-Lock Brake system. Many vehicles will have their own warning light for ABS brakes. When you see it, don't dismiss it. It could mean something is wrong with your brake system. Get it checked ASAP and before driving your vehicle. If your brakes lock up while moving at high speeds or in heavy traffic, the consequences could be dire.