Trouble Signs

By Maggie Reed

April 4, 2008 5 min read


Know what those dashboard warning lights mean

By Maggie Reed

Copley News Service

A light suddenly appears on your dashboard - but what the heck does it mean? Do you drive on or do you pull over immediately and call for help? Some lights, it turns out, are more important than others. And drivers need to know the difference.

The best advice for drivers is to study the manual.

"People really need to become familiar with their vehicle's manual so they are not completely alarmed when a light goes on," said Ted Harmon, a mechanic with Todd & Sons in San Diego. "A lot of people really flip out when a light goes on."

A recent survey by Automobile Association Personal Loans found that almost half of women (47 percent) and one-third of men (33 percent) couldn't correctly identify symbols for frequently used functions or basic warning lights.

The general rule of thumb is that if a warning light appears when you turn on the ignition, and doesn't extinguish after the engine has started, check your manual.

If the light comes on, and stays on, while you are driving, pull over, check the manual and see if it's safe to drive on or if it's time to call for help.

Here are some lights to look for, according to Automobile Association Limited (

- Oil pressure warning light. If the light comes on, pull over as soon as it is safe, turn off the engine and check your engine oil level. If low, top it off. If the warning lamp stays lit, even though the oil level is correct, don't restart the engine and call for help.

- Battery charge warning light. If this light does not illuminate when you turn the key, or if it illuminates while driving, your battery is in trouble.

This may be due to one of the following:

- Loose battery or starter terminals.

- A broken or loose alternator drive belt.

- An alternator failure.

If the drive belt is broken, it must be replaced before you restart the engine. Otherwise, you may suffer engine damage. Here again, pull over to a safe place and call for help.

- Brake system warning light. While the hand brake is engaged, this light will stay on. If it stays on after the brake is released, you may have a low brake fluid level. Go to your handbook; add the correct amount of brake fluid to bring it up to the "max" mark. If the light remains illuminated, even though the level of fluid is correct, it may indicate a sensor fault and you should get your vehicle to a shop as soon as possible.

- Engine warning light. If this illuminates with the engine running, it indicates a malfunction with the engine management system. Have it checked as soon as possible. If it flashes when driving, reduce your speed immediately until the light illuminates constantly. If it continues to flash, avoid heavy acceleration and high engine speed, and pull over when it is safe. Switch off the engine, wait two minutes, then restart the engine to reset the engine management system. If it's still flashing, seek assistance.

If it is fully illuminated, it is still safe to drive as long as no other faults are apparent with the engine. Then, get your vehicle checked as soon as possible to avoid any damage being caused to the catalytic converter.

- ABS warning light. If this light illuminates while driving, you have a malfunction. Normal braking (without ABS) will be maintained and the vehicle is safe to drive, but make sure to have it checked out soon.

- Brake system and abs warning lights. If both of these light up, it is definitely a time to pull over with ease. Use the brakes with great care. Do not step on the brake pedal abruptly and seek assistance.

- Fuel filter water trap (diesel engines). If this light goes on while you are driving it indicates that water has been detected in the fuel filter. Normally the vehicle is quite safe to drive, but have the accumulated water in the fuel filter drained off as soon as possible.

If you have just had your vehicle re-fueled and the light goes on, pull over and turn off the engine. The fuel may have been contaminated and could cause damage to the injection system.

Above all, know your vehicle. If you feel something is askew, chances are you are right. It doesn't pay - and will probably cost - to second guess. Keep an eye on your fluid levels and stay on top of maintenance.

"It's amazing how many people don't keep up with scheduled maintenance," Harmon said. "A decent shop will catch most problems before they happen."

So another important tip is to have a trusted mechanic to help you with questions you may have or turn a wrench when needed.

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