Cracking the code: What your car is trying to tell you

Posted December 12, 2017 3:36 p.m. EST
Updated July 13, 2018 2:06 p.m. EDT

Knowing the meaning of your vehicle's dashboard symbols helps drivers understand potentially vital information about the present state of their vehicle.

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Vehicle manufacturers have developed a number of dashboard symbols to convey different messages to the driver. Some of these messages are urgent warnings, others are friendly reminders.

Knowing the meaning of these messages helps drivers understand potentially vital information about the present state of their vehicle.

Flashing lights, different colors

When a light comes on the dashboard, it is not just the symbol that appears, but also the manner in which it appears, which delivers information.

All lights should appear on the dashboard when the key turns in the ignition. This is a self-test to show that each is functional. If any of them stay on though, this means a message is being delivered.

A steady light indicates a slightly lesser-degree of urgency. If the light flashes on and off, it may be necessary to pull over immediately, depending on the symbol.

The colors are also important to the message.

Red symbols are more serious warnings, so a flashing red symbol is the most concerning. Yellow or orange are warnings, but will not necessarily require one to immediately pull over. Green and blue symbols are not warnings but simply make the driver aware features are operating, like that their high beams are on or their turn signals are blinking.

These warning lights are your vehicle's "brains" trying to communicate with you. Just like when you are trying to ask a person for directions who speaks a different language, you will probably end up in the wrong place or have a lot of frustration and stress trying to reach your destination, it's the same with your warning lights. When you understand what your vehicle is telling you, the more likely you will be to arrive at your destination on time and with as little stress as possible.

Understanding these lights can save you money by catching certain conditions early before they become a problem. They can also keep your stress level down while you are driving if you understand what the lights mean.

Take a few minutes to look at your vehicle's owner manual online or read the one that came with the vehicle to familiarize yourself with these lights. Better yet, stop by your preferred mechanic and have one their experts go over the meanings with you.

Some common dashboard lights and their meanings

Dashboard symbols do have some variance among manufacturers, but most symbols are universal.

Leith : Spotlight : Low oil pressure

Low oil pressure

This light, featuring a classic oil can dripping oil, indicates your vehicle's oil level is low or pressure is low.

If this one comes on while you are driving and stays on for any length of time, pull over immediately and call your advisor or roadside assistance immediately.

Leith : Spotlight : Engine temperature too high

Engine temperature too high

This symbol, with a thermometer in fluid, suggests the coolant is not doing its job and the engine is becoming too hot.

Pull over immediately to avoid an engine overheating problem. When the ignition switch is turned to the "ON" position, you may have this symbol show up in blue and it may maintain illumination in blue. This blue illuminated light turns off when the engine is warmed up sufficiently.

Leith : Spotlight : Tire pressure monitoring system

Tire pressure monitoring system senses low pressure

As the name suggests, the (TPMS) light coming on typically means your tire pressure is low. Your TPMS helps you to avoid potentially unsafe situations by monitoring the air pressure in your tires and alerting you when one of them drops below its recommended pressure.

However, it can turn on when there is a change in temperature, especially when the temperature varies greatly from day to night. The pressure in a warm or hot tire will be higher than a cold tire, so it makes sense that your light may not be on when you first start out in the morning even though tires appear to be inflated, but as you drive, the light turns on.

In some late model vehicles you can look at your air pressure on your vehicle’s information center. If you don't have that option, check it with a manual gauge. It can be tough to tell if the air in a tire is too low or too high just by looking at it.

Leith : Spotlight : Check engine

Check engine

This symbol, an engine often with the word "check" on it, indicates a problem with the engine that needs to be checked soon.

f it is yellow, this is not as urgent. If it is red or flashing, pull over as soon as it is feasible and safe, and call your service department to avoid potentially damaging the engine.

Leith : Spotlight : Battery malfunction

Battery malfunction

A picture of a battery in red indicates that the battery voltage is very low.

It often means the charging system is not operating properly, which is preventing the battery from regaining power.

Leith : Spotlight : Low fuel indicator

Low fuel indicator

This symbol, with a picture of a gas pump, indicates that the fuel is low in your vehicle and will need to be re-filled before driving much farther.

This light may also be accompanied by an audible tone. It is usually placed somewhere near the fuel gauge to encourage the driver to look at the amount of fuel remaining.

Leith : Spotlight : Seatbelt reminder

Seatbelt reminder

This symbol, with a person wearing a seatbelt, is not a sign of any serious problems with the vehicle. It is simply a reminder for the driver to fasten their seatbelt. It is in red to indicate the importance of this precaution.

Leith : Spotlight : Airbag malfunction

Airbag malfunction

This warning, with a picture of a person making contact with an airbag, indicates the vehicle has detected problems within the airbag system.

If a serious accident were to occur before this was repaired, the airbag may not deploy properly, increasing risk of injury or fatality.

This light can also come on if something is laid on the seat. The computer has no idea if it is a package or a person. If this is the case, remove the package or item and see if the light turns off.

"Most of these symbols are fairly self-explanatory," said Kirby Morrow, consultant for fixed operations at Leith, Inc. "They were designed to be as simple as possible so the driver will get the message. The messages are often very important and being aware of what they're telling you is vital to both the car and the passengers."

Understanding these lights is important. They can extend the life of your vehicle, help keep you and your family safe, and they will help maintain your vehicle to stay in safe and dependable operating condition.

By taking just a couple of minutes to educate yourself on the meanings of these warning lights you can save money, keep you safe and ad to the driving enjoyment of your vehicle.

"Please don't be embarrassed if you are not clear on what the light is telling you," Morrow said. "Call us and let us help you. And one of the best things you can do is take a picture of the light; and when you call, tell your advisor that you have the photo and can send it to them. This can save a lot of time."

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