Cars have sensors and warning lights to alert you whenever there’s something wrong. They can also show whether a certain setting or feature is turned on or off. If you’re not sure what your warning lights mean, this guide will help you learn some of the most common ones.
The symbols below are sorted into the following categories: Warning lights, safety symbols, common indicators, driver-assist features, and lighting symbols.
Most symbols, like the low fuel light, are pretty obvious. Others, not so much. And while not all symbols are universal, many cars will have similar ones.
Seeing car warning lights pop up on your dashboard can be alarming, but knowing exactly what it means will help you figure out the next steps. Let's take a look.
Warning lights are usually red, indicating a potential issue that can cause immediate failure or other safety concerns. It’s best to get these checked right away.
If this light is on, there’s something wrong with the battery. Switch off all the electrical equipment and get it checked out by a professional. The battery light may also come on if there’s an issue with the alternator belt or the battery terminals. Here are a few of the most common reasons why car batteries die.
This light indicates an issue with the braking system. It could mean there’s a problem with the components themselves or the hydraulic fluid is low. Some basic troubleshooting steps would be to check the brake fluid as well as the brake pads and sensors. But brakes are obviously a critical component, so it’s best to get this checked by a mechanic before driving if you aren’t sure what’s causing the issue.
Coolant Level or Engine Temperature
The coolant level light usually comes on when your engine is overheating. Try and stop the vehicle as soon as you can to let it cool off. Once the engine has cooled, check the coolant level and look for any potential leaks. If you suspect it’s leaking, then you’ll want to take it to a mechanic.
But if the coolant level is low, then you can add the appropriate type of coolant as recommended in your manual. If it’s been a while since the coolant has been changed, you may want to get the coolant system professionally flushed. Or if you have some mechanical ability, you may be able to do it yourself.
Engine Oil Warning
The engine oil light indicates something’s wrong with the oil pressure. A loss of pressure means that your engine won’t be getting the proper lubrication it needs. Even if the levels seem normal, you should still get it inspected.
These indicators can be different colors. Whether they’re red or yellow, they still need to be looked at and addressed quickly.
You might have a problem with the airbags if this light comes on. If the warning light is on, they aren’t activated and won’t deploy correctly in the event of an accident. This could be caused by a few things such as faulty sensors, a depleted battery, or water damage. Airbags are federally mandated and crucial to safety, so you’ll want to get it checked out by a mechanic or your dealer’s service center immediately.
Anti-Lock Braking System (ABS)
The ABS warning light signifies an issue with the Anti-Lock Braking System. It doesn’t mean brake failure, but there are a few reasons why the ABS light could be on. You may have just triggered the light by stopping too hard and locking up the brakes. Even so, it’s still a good idea to get it checked out.
Check Engine/Engine Warning Light
Most people are familiar with the check engine warning light. While a wide range of issues can set it off, you’ll still want to get it checked out. Some of the causes aren't a big deal, like a loose gas cap or even a change in humidity. But oftentimes, it indicates that a sensor or other engine component related to emissions control is in need of replacing. If the light is ever flashing, you should get to a mechanic immediately. A flashing check engine light usually indicates something much more urgent, like an engine misfire, that could lead to serious damage.
Check engine lights are associated with diagnostic trouble codes, or DTCs. You can find out which DTC triggered the check engine light yourself by plugging an OBD2 scanner into the vehicle’s onboard diagnostic system. If you don’t have one, many auto shops are happy to run a scan for free.
Check out our Mustang DTC or Wrangler DTC guides for some vehicle-specific error codes.
Low Tire Pressure Warning
The TPMS symbol comes on when there’s an issue with the tire pressure. It could mean the pressure is low in one or multiple tires. Some cars have the technology to tell you which tire is low, but for others, you'll have to manually check each tire. If the refilled tire(s) won’t maintain pressure, you probably have a leak.
There could also be an issue with a TPMS sensor, which usually needs to be reset by a professional. Sometimes the low tire pressure warning light can come on as a result of cold weather. When the temperature drops, tire pressure can lower around 1 PSI for every 10-degree decrease.
Tire pressure varies per manufacturer but is usually within the 32-40 PSI range. Read more about why tire pressure matters and why it’s dangerous for it to be too low or too high.
Parking Brake Light
A “P” with a circle around it indicates that the parking or emergency brake is engaged. You’ll want to release it before putting the car in drive. If you’ve released the parking brake and the light remains on or is flashing, then there may be another issue. It could be that the parking brake isn’t fully disengaged, there’s a problem with the switch, or you’re low on brake fluid.
The powertrain warning light looks like a gear and will light up if there’s an issue with the engine, transmission, or driveshaft. It can also come on if there are problems with the AWD or 4WD systems. The powertrain fault light might come on with the check engine light due to a bit of overlap. If you see this light, you should visit a mechanic since diagnosing the exact problems with these complex systems can be difficult.
Like the check engine light, if the powertrain warning light is flashing, it means the issue is urgent and you should see a mechanic immediately. If both the check engine and powertrain fault light are flashing at the same time, you should pull over and turn off the engine as soon as it's safe.
Press Clutch Pedal
This light may come on if you’ve got a manual and you try to start the engine before engaging the clutch pedal. It’s mainly just a reminder.
Traction or Stability Control
Most cars let you turn traction control on and off. You’ll see this light come on if you’ve turned it off, whether it was by accident or on purpose. Traction control systems reduce power and apply brakes to the wheels as needed to prevent the vehicle from slipping. Turning it off can provide you with more power, but safety will decrease in slippery conditions.
You don’t need to go to the shop if you see any of these common indicators. They mainly serve as reminders so you don’t forget something important.
Most dashboards will let you know if one of the doors is open by flashing this symbol. Oftentimes it shows you which door is open so you can remind that passenger how to properly shut a door.
Eco Driving Indicator
Many modern vehicles come with an Eco Driving mode to help improve fuel economy. The “ECO” light will come on if you have this mode enabled.
Fasten Seat Belt Reminder
This one’s pretty self-explanatory. You’ll see this friendly reminder light up if you’ve forgotten to fasten your seat belt. They may not be the most comfortable, but there are a few reasons to belt up. One, because it’s the law. Two, because your car will most likely beep and annoy the crap out of you if you don’t.
You won’t forget you have your hood open thanks to this warning indicator. If you just closed the hood, and it’s still on, double-check that the hood latch is completely secure.
Low Fuel Level
This warning light is one you’ve probably seen, and it means you need to stop at the nearest gas station. There will usually be one or two gallons left in the tank, but it varies by vehicle. Did you know the arrow next to the pump tells you which side your fuel tank is on?
You may have seen some people drive down the road with the trunk open. It happens. But with this handy warning light, you can make sure that it isn’t you. It’ll light up to let you know that your trunk is open and needs to be shut.
Washer Fluid Level
This light will come on if your washer fluid level is low. It’s important to keep it full in case you need to clear something off the windshield that may affect your visibility.
You may not have many driver-assist features if you drive an older vehicle. However, many newer vehicles include these safety and convenience features standard or as options.
Adaptive Cruise Control
Adaptive cruise control is a feature that uses sensors or cameras to automatically adjust your vehicle's speed to maintain a safe distance between you and the vehicle in front of you. The indicator light will illuminate when the system is active. It may change colors depending on whether it’s engaged or not.
For most vehicles, the indicator light will be white when the system is on but not active. When the system is engaged and active, it will be green. No light is visible when the system is off.
While it looks like the traditional cruise control symbol, the adaptive cruise control light also has a small car next to the speedometer.
Many newer vehicles have an Auto Start-Stop feature that shuts the engine off when the vehicle is at a stop and idling. The engine turns back on once pressure is released from the brake pedal or when pressure is put on the accelerator. This light will illuminate white when the system is active. The light may also be on if you’ve manually disabled the system, but show a color other than white.
Blind Spot Monitor
If you have a blind spot monitoring system, this will alert you when it is off. Blind-spot monitoring systems use sensors attached to the rear bumper or the side mirrors to detect if there’s something in your blind spot. There are usually flashing lights on the side mirrors to indicate that it’s not safe to get over.
This light will come on when cruise control is engaged. It looks very similar to the adaptive cruise control symbol but doesn’t feature the car next to the speedometer.
Lane assist is a common safety feature on many modern vehicles. The symbol is usually an image of a car with lines on both sides to represent a lane. This indicator light will be on when the system is activated.
These are some common lighting symbols you may see on your dashboard. You probably know most of these already, but it never hurts to have a refresher.
Automatic High Beams
The automatic high beam indicator looks similar to the regular high beam light. But underneath it will have the words “AUTO” and will light up green when the high beams are automatically activated.
Fog Lamp Lights
If you’ve got fog lamps, this symbol will show up when they’re switched on. Since they usually have to be switched on manually, it’s a good reminder.
This triangular-shaped indicator means the hazard lights, or four-way flashers, are turned on. They’re useful any time you need to pull over on the side of the road, but they’re also easy to forget to turn off. That’s why this indicator can be helpful. There will also be a clicking noise when the hazard lights are engaged for an audible reminder that they’re on and flashing.
High Beam Light
Nobody likes getting blinded by a bright set of high beams. If you usually forget to turn them off, keep an eye out for this symbol on your dashboard. Your fellow drivers will thank you.
If the parking lights are on, this symbol will light up. For those with automatic lights, you may rarely turn them on manually. But if you do, this indicator light will show up on your dash.
Turn Signals/Direction Indicators
You (probably) already know what turn signals look like. They’re arrows pointing either left or right. The turn signals indicate which blinker you have on so you can let other drivers know your intentions. They also make a clicking noise to remind you that they’re on so you don’t forget to turn them off if they don’t do so automatically.
Can You Drive with a Warning Light On?
You can drive with a warning light on and have no issues. But depending on which warning light it is, you may want to get it checked out immediately.
For example, if the low coolant level or engine oil warning lights are on, you should find a mechanic. If you keep driving, you may end up overheating or damaging the engine. It’s always better to err on the side of caution.
Sources: Ford, CAA, MotorTrend