Dashboard Confusion

By Vicky Katz Whitaker

January 22, 2010 5 min read

There's a reason your vehicle's dashboard lights up like a Christmas tree every time you put the key in the ignition. It's a safety feature designed to alert you about many things that could be going wrong with your car, from low tire pressure to a looming engine failure.

"Everything lights up for a few seconds to let you know the signal system is working," explains Dan Edmunds, director of vehicle testing for Edmunds.com, a widely read Web site that tracks automotive developments and trends. If the dashboard lights don't come on in the startup mode, head to your dealer or auto mechanic to get the signal lamp, which controls the lights, repaired. Ignoring a signal lamp that's blown out could be very costly because it will fail to alert you about any of the dozens of sensor-detected problems that could go wrong with your car.

Consumer demand for better highway safety, federal regulations and a more sophisticated buying public have reshaped what goes on the dashboard and under the hood. Once dismissed as "idiot lights" by those who preferred specific gauges to detect oil pressure and water temperature and an ammeter to measure battery charging or discharging, the use of dashboard symbols is part of a long-term evolution in automotive dashboard design that parallels the introduction of computer-monitored controls and safety features.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration requires automobile manufacturers to include 32 operational indicators by name, abbreviation and/or a symbol in vehicles to be sold in the United States. Automakers have the option to choose the colors they want for most of these dashboard markers, but some icons must be in red or yellow to alert drivers to serious safety issues, Edmunds says, such as brake failure, low tire pressure, a malfunctioning air bag or an engine-related problem.

The symbols are among some 162 icons developed by the International Organization for Standardization and agreed to by automotive manufacturers worldwide so that drivers can universally identify such things as gears, light switches, windshield wipers, high beams and fan controls. The icons mandated by NHTSA are all safety-related and relatively easy to figure out. Here are some examples:

*Hazard ahead: Hitting the triangle-shaped hazard button puts all your vehicle's front and rear turn signals into flashing mode, a sure sign to fellow motorists that either there's danger ahead or you need immediate help.

*Turn signals: Once considered an aftermarket novelty to supplement hand signals, built-in turn signals are expressed on the dash by left and right arrows. In most vehicles, if an arrow flashes faster than normal, a signal bulb is burned out.

*Engine oil level: If the symbol of a dripping oil lamp lights up, you may be low on oil or have an oil-related problem.

*Tire pressure monitoring system: Most late-model cars use radio and sensor technology to monitor the air pressure in tires. When low pressure is detected or if there is a tire malfunction, the TPMS icon, a cross section of a tire with a large exclamation point in the middle, will illuminate.

*Charging system: If the light with the symbol of a battery marked by a plus and minus sign stays on once your vehicle has started or comes on when you are driving, there's a good chance you're having belt issues or other electrical problems that could drain your battery.

*Anti-lock braking system: The letters "ABS" serve as a symbol for the anti-lock braking system, a system that improves steering control during breaking maneuvers, especially on slippery roads. If the light stays on past the few seconds that it appears when you turn the ignition key or if it comes on while you're driving, your anti-lock brakes are not working.

*Hydraulic brake system: Expressed as the word "brake" in the United States -- and in Canada as an exclamation point in a circle flanked by curved lines -- this dashboard symbol is a sure sign there's a brake problem ... or that you've left the parking brake engaged.

*Engine woes: If the outline of an engine or "check engine" illuminates, head to the repair shop. It could be minor, but it also could mean an engine or transmission problem that requires an immediate fix.

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