Back in the stone ages of motoring, cars came with real instrumentation, typically including a tachometer (to measure engine speed), a speedometer (to measure road speed), a voltage gauge or an ammeter (to measure voltage or current to the battery), an oil pressure gauge, an oil temperature gauge, fuel gauge and a coolant temperature gauge. Over the years, car makers realized two things: it was cheaper to replace functional gauges with idiot lights, and people actually paid more attention to idiot lights than they did gauges. Thus was born the modern instrument panel, which now typically includes a speedometer, a fuel gauge and (maybe) a temperature gauge and tachometer. All of the other critical information your car can display to you is now done via the driver information display or via idiot lights.
When a dash warning light comes on, it always signals trouble. Sometimes this is serious, pull to the side of the road NOW stuff, while other times it’s get-around-to-having-it-looked-at-next-week stuff. If you’re reading car blogs, chances are good you already know this; however, you’d be surprised at the number of drivers who have no clue what a particular warning light indicates. Below I’ll try to give you an example of the more common ones, along with my take on how serious the situation is. If you remember nothing else, remember this: automakers typically code warning lights either red or yellow. If you see a red light, it’s a good idea to pull to the side of the road as quick as you can safely do so. A yellow light typically signifies a problem as well, but one you can address after you get home.
Red Warning Lights
Typically represented by a stylized oil can, this is the mother of all warning lights. If you see the low oil pressure light come on, stop the car as soon as you safely can. Most oil pressure warning lights don’t even trip until the engine is already being damaged, so if this light comes on don’t even think about driving the car until you check and replenish the lost oil.
Typically represented by the word “TEMP” or a stylized thermometer, this is another warning light that demands your immediate attention. You car will soon begin to overheat, if it isn’t doing so already, probably because your engine coolant level is low. Stop the car as soon as you can safely do so and check the coolant level in the external reservoir. DO NOT attempt to open the radiator cap, unless a face full of steam and scalding water is your idea of a good time.
Typically represented by the word “BRAKE”, this usually means one of two things: either you forgot to release the parking brake and are enjoying the smell of burning brake pads, or your brake fluid level is low. On a modern vehicle, that’s a pretty unusual situation unless your brake pads are completely worn out or you’ve got a leak in your hydraulic system. If it were me, I’d limp the car home but give myself more braking distance since I’d expect pedal effort to increase as I continued to drive. If you’re not comfortable driving with reduced braking ability, I’d seriously encourage you to pull to the side of the road and have your car towed.
Typically represented by a battery symbol, this means your charging system isn’t working properly. It may also mean you’re living on borrowed time, as your car will be drawing down the voltage in your battery without replenishing it. If your close to home (less than 30 minutes) and you’ve got a battery less than 3 years old, go for it. If you’re hours away from home and the battery is ancient, you won’t be going too far.
Yellow Warning Lights
Typically represented by a stylized engine, this light signals that you’ve got some kind of trouble with your engine’s emission control systems. It may be as simple as a loose gas cap, or as complicated as a defective oxygen sensor. Most modern cars have a “limp home” mode that allow you to drive at reduced power; in a worst case scenario, you’ll just take longer getting home than planned. Get this checked out as soon as you can, but don’t let it stop you from driving home.
Usually represented by a cross section of tire with an exclamation point in the center, this light means that one of your tires is low. Some newer cars have an information display that will tell you which tire is low. Less well-equipped vehicles (like my FJ Cruiser) require you to check each tire to find the one down on pressure. If I were behind the wheel, I’d stop and check my tire pressure as soon as possible, starting with my spare tire (assuming you have a full size spare equipped with a pressure sensor). Since I carry a plug repair kit and compressor with me, I’d inspect the low pressure tire for punctures, repair, re-inflate and be on my way.
Typically, this light shows a car with skid marks behind it. If the light is on, your stability control isn’t working: verify that you haven’t turned the system off by accident, and proceed with caution.
Represented by the letters “ABS” in a circle surrounded by brackets, this light means that your ABS system isn’t working as intended. It may be something as simple as a blocked sensor, or it may mean mechanical damage to the ABS system itself. I’ve driven a lot of cars without ABS, so this wouldn’t cause me much concern; as long as the red “Brake” light isn’t on, you should have reasonable braking ability (though without the anti-lock feature).
Remember that this is a general summary, and that your car and circumstances may vary. When in doubt about your car’s safety (or your ability to drive a damaged car) always err on the side of caution and pull over when it’s safe to do so.