Whether it’s a minor problem or a major issue, you can count on that light on the dashboard illuminating. Our cars warn us when something isn’t right, and that’s good because there are some warning signs you shouldn’t ignore.

Knowing the meaning of your dashboard lights will help you know if it’s a situation that requires immediate attention—or if it can wait. Here are some important lights and what they mean.


Dashboard Lights


Airbag Warning

The airbag warning light looks like a passenger with a large ball on his/her lap. It is normal for this light to turn on when you first start the engine. If it stays lit, however, there could be an issue. Your car is safe to drive, but you will want the airbag checked so that it will deploy during an accident.


Automatic Shift Lock or Engine Start Indicator

Today’s newer cars require that you step on the brake to start the engine. You also need to step on the brake to shift out of neutral into reverse or drive. This foot-shaped light is a reminder.


Check Engine

This light looks like a miniature engine. It comes on when there is anything amiss with your car’s motor and emissions system. Some cars have two stages of a check engine light: illuminated (less serious) and flashing (serious warning). It could mean:

    • Loose gas cap
    • Faulty oxygen sensor
    • Catalytic converter issues
    • Mass airflow sensor
    • Worn-out spark plugs
    • Loose wire

If you’re driving and everything seems fine, don’t panic. Pull the car over and check the gas cap.  If that’s not the cause, then schedule an appointment as soon as possible. If the check engine light is on, and the car starts making strange noises or driving erratically, pull over and get it towed to your mechanic. That could indicate a more serious issue.



This light that resembles a battery is a warning that something could be wrong with your car’s electrical system. It doesn’t necessarily mean that there’s an issue with your battery. It could be:

    • Corroded cable or wire
    • Alternator
    • Battery
    • Electrical components

Get to a mechanic soon to resolve this issue. A battery light is a warning that your car could break down.


Brake System

This light is usually an exclamation point in a circle. It illuminates for several reasons.

    • Failing to release the parking brake
    • Low brake fluid
    • Worn brake pads
    • Trouble with anti-lock brakes

An illuminated ABS (anti-lock brake) light can indicate a problem with the wheel speed sensor or other connections or wiring. If your brake light is lit, and the parking brake is not the issue, bring your car in for a professional checkup as soon as possible.


Coolant Temperature

This light resembles a thermometer and if it comes on, it means the temperature of your coolant is too high. There are several possible causes.

    • Broken water pump
    • Low coolant levels in the radiator
    • Leaking or burst coolant hose
    • Damage to the radiator

A high coolant temperature can cause your car to overheat and break down. It also can permanently damage your engine. Pull over and let the car cool down. Adding coolant can temporarily fix the problem but get your vehicle checked by a mechanic before you drive it further.


Distance Warning

If you’re driving a newer vehicle, you may see this light when you’re coming too close to the car or something – or someone — in front of you. The light resembles two cars about to hit each other and is a warning to slow down.


Door Open

An image of a car with doors open indicates that one or more of your doors is not fully closed. This may include your trunk or rear hatch. Closing the door should make the light go out, and have you on your way.


Frost Warning

This light, which resembles a snowflake, comes on when temperatures outside are below freezing. It will stay on as long as it’s cold, to remind you that ice could form and you should use caution.


Lamp Out

Resembling a sun with an exclamation mark, this light comes on when a bulb in your headlights or tail lights burns out. Replace it as soon as possible so your car is visible to other drivers.


Low Fuel

A gas tank appears when your fuel level is low. Get to a gas station as soon as possible so that you don’t run out of gas.


Oil Pressure Warning

This light that resembles an oil can could simply be telling you that you need more oil. But it also could indicate something more serious:

    • Leak in the engine
    • Blown piston ring
    • Broken oil pump

If the light doesn’t go off after you’ve added oil, then get your car checked out professionally. Do not ignore this light and drive for an extended period of time—or you could damage your engine.


Traction and Stability Control

When the roads are slippery, your car’s traction control light may blink. That simply means that it’s doing its job and there’s no cause for concern. This light, which looks like a car with skid marks, can stay on. If that happens, it means there’s a problem with your system and you should have it checked. Also, if this light turns on during dry, sunny conditions, there may be a repair or adjustment needed.


Transmission Temperature

This gear wheel image with a thermometer lights up when the temperature is too high inside your gearbox. Heavy towing can cause this issue. Otherwise, it’s likely that your transmission fluid level is low or your transmission has worn out. Get your car to a mechanic as soon as possible.


Tire Pressure Monitoring System

When any one of your tires is low, your TPMS system kicks in. The light looks like a tire that’s a bit deflated with an exclamation mark. Don’t drive on severely underinflated or overinflated tires; you won’t have enough traction and you can damage your tires. Adding air to deflated tires should get the light to go off, but if you have persistent problems, have your tires checked by a professional.


Washer Fluid

If your washer fluid is low, you’ll see this light, which resembles a windshield being squirted. While you don’t have to rush to get new fluid, it’s still a good idea to get some as soon as possible. Dirt, snow, and ice can quickly build up on your windshield, making it hard for you to see.


Car Diagnostic Tools

You can buy a tool that helps you diagnose the specific problem that’s causing your dashboard lights to illuminate. Auto Zone offers this Fix FinderSM Service for free. If you are doing it yourself, make sure that you know where to plug it in and how to read it. Some car diagnostic tools require you to enter your car’s make and model, VIN, and other information. You can then decide if it’s something you can fix or an issue that your mechanic needs to address.

Importantly, you will want to address any issues in a timely manner. Ignoring them can create more expensive repairs and dangerous conditions down the road.

Check our other blog for maintenance mistakes that can cost you. Your car is one of your greatest investments. Keep it well maintained and protect it with the right car insurance.


This article is furnished by California Casualty, providing auto and home insurance to educators, law enforcement officers, firefighters, and nurses. Get a quote at 1.866.704.8614 or www.calcas.com.




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