What these 5 common warning lights mean in your car

What these 5 common warning lights mean in your car

In the recently successful TV show, The Big Bang Theory, the character of Penny consistently ignored the ‘check engine’ light on her car. It was an on-going joke and, curiously, the vehicle never seemed to malfunction. The problem is, television is not real life. If any light illuminates on a car’s dashboard while driving it is a sign that all is not well. Ignore these lights at your peril. At best there could be an expensive garage bill on the automotive horizon; at worse, it could be a warning of an impending accident.

At start-up, all the dashboard warning lights, and there can be lots of them, will illuminate briefly and then extinguish. That’s not a fault; look at it as a sort of pre-flight check. With all the lights out the car is saying that all systems are go and the journey can begin. All being well, they will stay off for the whole trip; until the day they don’t. Here’s some examples:

Check Engine Light

Usually, this looks like a yellow diagram of an engine block. This is the actual check engine light of TV fame. This may or may not be accompanied by some engine power or emission fault that quickly becomes apparent. There are numerous potential causes. Stop as soon as possible. Don’t leave it until later.

Brake Warning

The brakes of a car are obviously a vital component that should be in tip-top working order. Poor brake performance means trouble on the road ahead. This light is instantly recognisable: It’s an exclamation mark within a circle and closed in brackets. It could mean that the brake fluid level is low or that the ABS is faulty (there may be an associated warning light for this). Get it sorted as soon as possible.

Power Steering

This is usually a red steering wheel symbol, which makes sense. All cars have power-steering these days to make the job of turning heavy tyres on road surfaces that much easier. Anyone who has driven a car without will tell you how difficult it is. So unless the driver has body-builder biceps, if the power steering goes, stop. A car can be too difficult to handle without it. Ask at your local service garage for a power-steering check.


Engine cooling systems are sealed units these days and, provided a car is regularly serviced, should not present any issue unless a component, like a hose, gets damaged. Nevertheless, overheating can still happen. Coolant levels could be running low because of a hidden leak or, worse still, there could be an engine head gasket failure. It’s a thermometer-shaped symbol in red. The oil warning is also red.


The battery warning light is shaped like a battery and is usually also red. When this illuminates, the driver knows that the battery is not receiving charge from the alternator or that there is a fault in connections somewhere. Either way, the battery will quickly discharge as it is powering ancillary equipment and the unlucky owner will find the car won’t start; usually at a time when it is needed most.

And Finally

All the dashboard light symbols are notated in the handbook for the car, detailing each function. It doesn’t hurt to have a read-through and get to know them from the off. For example, many cars now monitor tyre pressures and a dash light will illuminate if one or more tyres are running soft. This is not necessarily a fault as tyres can lose pressure over time but there’s still a case to get them checked.

Most of the other dashboard warnings suggest a more serious issue. Don’t delay; head directly to the local car servicing garage and have the problem investigated. None of us are Penny from The Big Bang; if a dashboard warning light comes on it means business.

© Copyright 2018 Ewan Lawon Motors Designed by AB Fiftyone