Error signs on car dashboard

Understanding the Warning Lights on Your Dashboard

A modern car dashboard is fitted with more tiny bulbs than you’d find on some christmas trees, so it can be difficult to figure out and remember what each and every one of them means. Bear in mind that not all of them are bad news – in fact, there are a few that you want to see illuminated at certain times of the day. However, many of them can mean trouble for you and your car, putting any journeys you have planned in jeopardy.

If your car’s dashboard is lit up so bright it gives you a migraine, there’s sure to be some issues going on under the bonnet… but you’re probably already aware of that. Many of the problems could be difficult and expensive to fix, to the point where it might be easier and more sensible from a financial standpoint to simply scrap the car altogether. Scrap Car Comparison can help you find the best deals for your old car, no matter what condition it’s in. Our scrap value calculator takes into account any pros and cons with the vehicle to total up a great price, then once you accept an offer from one of the local scrap dealers on our network, we can even help arrange for it to be collected at no extra cost!

ABS light. Car dashboard in closeup

What Are The Warning Lights On My Car Dashboard For?

The intricacies of automobiles reach far beyond what the average, untrained person could understand, but even to an expert mechanic, it would be impossible to immediately identify every problem without performing a thorough inspection.

This is where the lights on the dashboard come in handy, notifying you when your car has a problem before it causes long-lasting damage or worse, an accident. The lights take the form of universal icons or logos that correspond to each problem, but if you don’t know what each icon means (and some of them are a bit strange) then you’ll still be in the dark. That’s why we’ve put together this comprehensive guide explaining what each light means.

What Do The Lights On My Car Dashboard Mean?

Since there’s so many lights on the dashboard of your car, it’s crucial that you understand what you’re being told when one activates. We’ll list them below, with explanations, but first of all it’s worth understanding that they’re actually colour coded. Green or blue lights are not typically warnings as such, generally meaning that something is operating as intended – for example, headlights (green) and full beams (blue). Orange or yellow shows that something is wrong and the problem should be rectified as soon as possible, but the issue is unlikely (though not impossible) to stop the car dead in its tracks on your current journey. Red is far more serious and should indeed be dealt with as a priority. In fact, there are many red warning lights that should keep your car off the road until the fault is fixed.

One more thing, before we get into it: You’ll notice that some of your dashboard lights will illuminate when the engine is first turned on. This is normal and not a cause for panic. After a few seconds, the lights should turn off again as expected.

Brake Warning Light dashboard icon

Brake Warning Light

What it could mean:

  • Handbrake is still on
  • Brake fluid is low
  • Brake system malfunction (sometimes with ABS & EBD warning lights)

First off, make sure your handbrake is fully lowered. If it is, and this light shows up while driving, your brake fluid could be low and this should be rectified immediately. Alternatively, it could be a brake system malfunction which could be extremely dangerous.

Yellow engine light

Engine Management Warning Light

What it could mean:

  • Numerous faults

The dreaded engine light will often be accompanied by a noticeable physical alteration to your car’s performance, like a reduction in power, unusual noises or excessive emissions. This light is particularly serious and can be a sign of issues not just with the engine itself, but with other interconnected systems, like the catalytic converter. Therefore, the car should be examined promptly.

Red light, steering wheel with !

Power Steering Warning Light

What it could mean:

  • Minor electrical fault
  • More serious electrical fault

This Electronic Power Steering (EPS) warning light shows that there’s an issue with your car’s power steering system. This will make turning more difficult than you’re used to and could cause you to lose control of the vehicle. If this light appears, pull over where safe to do so and turn off the engine. A minute later, turn the car back on. If the system reset did not fix the problem, seek professional assistance.


Diesel Particulate Filter Warning Light

What it could mean:

  • Particulate filter is damaged
  • Particulate filter is blocked

Exclusive to diesel cars, as the name suggests, this light means that something is wrong with the filter that cleans the exhaust gases that your car emits. For the sake of the planet, and to prevent any further damage to other car parts, this should be dealt with fairly quickly. However, before rushing over to a garage to get it replaced, head to the closest dual carriageway or motorway and try driving at over 40mph and at 3000rpm for 15 to 20 minutes. This method, known as passive regeneration, has been known to clear diesel particulate filters.

Airbag warning light

Airbag Warning Light

What it could mean:

  • Airbag is not working
  • Passenger weight & position can’t be registered
  • Seat belt pretensioner fault

One of the more self-explanatory lights, if you can figure out what the icon is supposed to be. With this light illuminated, it’s unlikely that one or more of your vehicle’s airbags will deploy as intended, if at all. For safety reasons, this is another that should be checked out ASAP.

Coolant light, yellow

Coolant Level Warning Light

What it could mean:

  • Reminder to top up coolant

This yellow light serves as a gentle reminder, more than a warning, that your coolant levels are getting low and should be topped up when you next get a chance to do so.

Coolant light, red

Engine Temperature Warning Light

What it could mean:

  • Coolant levels are low
  • Head gasket malfunction

When your engine gets too hot, you’re sure to see this red light staring back at you. Check your coolant level as soon as possible. If they simply need topping up, you can do so with ease and be on your way. However, if there’s a leak, this will obviously need fixing before the coolant level can be maintained at a suitable level. Worse still, if the head gasket on your car has failed, it will lead to very severe complications that could prove very costly to repair.

Oil warning light, red

Oil Warning Light

What it could mean:

  • Oil is too hot
  • Oil level is too low
  • Oil pressure is too low

Poor oil lubrication throughout the car’s mechanical systems can lead to significant damage which, in turn, could cost a small fortune to get fixed. A low oil level would be the simplest issue to fix, requiring an easy top up. Be sure to check the level beforehand using the dipstick. Other oil-related issues can be much more serious, so the car should be checked over as soon as possible.

Battery warning light, red

Battery Warning Light

What it could mean:

  • Multiple electrical problems
  • Car battery needs replacing
  • Alternator is faulty

The battery is one of the most important parts of a car, particularly in the modern era with so many electric gizmos at work. If this begins to give out on you, you’ll notice dimming of lights, both interior and exterior, along with other power-related issues. If you’re struggling to get the car started in the first place, this may be down to the battery, but it could also point towards a faulty alternator. Either way, it’d be a good idea to get this looked at soon, or you may not get the car started again!

ABS warning light, yellow

Anti-lock Braking System Warning Light

What it could mean:

  • ABS is not working properly
  • Brake system malfunction (sometimes with brake warning light)

ABS must come as standard on every new car now, offering extra control when braking, whether that’s slowly in mild conditions or suddenly during an emergency stop situation. If the ABS system on your car is not working, getting it fixed should be prioritised. Driving without it will be dangerous and the vehicle will handle very differently to how you’re used to.

ESP warning light, yellow

Electronic Stability Problem Warning Light

What it could mean:

  • Electronic stability is taking place (flashing)
  • Electronic stability is not working (solid)

A slightly different one now, with a light that has two states: flashing and solid. If the ESP light starts flashing, it means that the system is active. You should find this happening if you’re driving on icy or especially wet road surfaces. On the other hand, if the light is solid (not flashing), it means that the system is not going to work as intended when it’s needed. For your own safety, and the safety of other drivers, it’s advisable to get any issues sorted out sharpish… particularly if it’s wintertime.

Tyre pressure warning light, yellow

Tyre Pressure Warning Light

What it could mean:

  • One or more tyres are punctured
  • Tyre pressure needs to be increased

Checking tyre pressure is something that should be done regularly by every driver, topping up as and when required. However, if you notice an unusual decrease in pressure, it’s very likely that a tyre could be punctured and beginning to deflate. If this is the case, it’s unsafe to continue your journey – unless you’re on run-flat tyres, that is, which offer you a lifeline to get you somewhere safer.

Brake Pad warning light, yellow

Brake Pad Warning Light

What it could mean:

  • Brake pads are too thin

This is actually one of the more self-explanatory ones. Your brake pads are connected to sensors that can indicate to you when they’re wearing down to an unsafe level. This indication comes in the form of the yellow warning light. Like most of the components of a car’s brakes, the pads will be checked on the annual MOT.

Can I Turn Off The Warning Lights In My Car?

We’re not going to lecture you on whether ‘just because you could, doesn’t mean you should’. Yes, you can turn the warning lights off and may need to do so after getting a fault sorted out if the system fails to register the fix. Sometimes, a system reset could be all it takes for your car to realise the issue has been rectified. Try turning the engine on and off or taking the vehicle out for a drive for a while. In a lot of cases, this should sort the light out, but if it remains on, it could be worth getting the car looked at again – it’s possible that the mechanical problem isn’t fixed after all!

Will My Car Fail its MOT With The Engine Light On?

Over the last few years, MOT rules were changed to be a lot stricter with the introduction of defect categories. Unfortunately, an illuminated engine light is an immediate failure, with it being classed as a major defect. If the light is lit when the engine is turned on at the beginning of the test, you’re out of luck, regardless of whether the light is orange or red.

What Does The Car With a Spanner Light Mean?

There is one more light that might pop up on your dashboard which we haven’t covered yet. Some of you may never see it, whereas others might have it seared into their brain and see it in their sleep. This infamous illuminated icon is the ‘service’ light.

It can appear as a lone spanner, without the car design, but no matter how it looks, it means that your car should be booked in for a service very soon. On average, cars should be serviced every 12 months or 12,000 miles but it’s not uncommon for many drivers to ignore this and spend their money elsewhere.

If your car is beyond saving due to a colourful display of lights on the dashboard, it’s probably going to be easier and cheaper to part ways with it and get something more reliable. In fact, it won’t just be cheaper – selling it with Scrap Car Comparison can even turn your stricken vehicle into fast cash! Our vast network of scrap buyers can liaise with you to collect your car at no extra cost, take it away and get you paid the very same day. Get a quote and find out how much your car could be worth as scrap or salvage today!

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