Modern cars are full of sensors that measure and report important information to the driver, making driving easier and safer. When something does go wrong however, figuring out what the various warning lights mean isn’t always the most straightforward of task.
Car warning lights
If you’re driving and a light pops on, don’t panic - pull over somewhere safe and investigate the issue as soon as possible, as ignoring these warnings could put your safety at risk and lead to unwanted, costly repair work.
Amber warning lights indicate non-urgent problems, but you should still take your car to the garage whenever possible to have the issue checked out. If the warning light is red, however, you should take your car to a professional immediately. If you’re unsure about any symbols, look at your car manual to find out what they mean, as these can vary between models.
To help you navigate the sometimes confusing world of dashboard lights and identify what car maintenance needs to be carried out, we’ve put together a list of the most important symbols, and what they mean.
This light appears when you put the handbrake on. If this light is still on when the handbrake is off, there may be a problem with your braking system - such as low brake fluid or worn brake pads. This should be checked out immediately if problems persist.
The engine light can mean a variety of things - from faulty electrics to problems with fuel injection and faulty ignition. Sometimes when this light comes on, it can be followed by a lack of power and intermittent stuttering when the accelerator is pressed. Speak to your mechanic when possible, as ignoring the light could lead to expensive, irreversible damage.
This symbol means the airbag system is faulty. Get your car checked out if this light comes on as it can mean two things: that the airbag will not deploy in an accident, or that the airbags could go off at any time – potentially leading to injury.
When the power steering symbol comes on, you may need to top up the power steering fluid. If, after you’ve checked fluid levels, the light is still on and the steering is slow and heavy, then you may need to have your car checked by a professional. Heavy or slow steering makes basic manoeuvres difficult, and reactions to obstacles on the road risky.
Engine cooling system
If your vehicle overheats it could lead to irreversible damage to the engine. When the engine coolant light comes on, pull over and wait for the car to cool down, check the coolant levels and top up if needed. If the light is still on afterwards, you may have to call for assistance.
The oil warning light means you may need a top up – neglecting oil levels in your car could lead to engine damage. If the light is still on after topping up the oil, you may need to get the oil filters changed.
The battery warning light comes on when you start up your vehicle, and disappears when the engine is switched on. If the light is still on then once the car has started, then there could be issues with the electrics. It could also mean there’s a poor connection, that the battery is faulty, or that the alternator has failed – so get it checked out by a mechanic to be on the safe side.
Full beams, front and rear fog lights
These are not lights that indicate problems, instead they allow the driver to know they’re functioning. It’s important to remember the law for these lights, drivers “must not use front or rear fog lights unless visibility is seriously reduced as they dazzle other road users and obscure your brake lights1.” It’s easy to forget to turn these lights off after a long drive home, so quickly glancing at your dashboard should remind you to switch them off after use.
Most cars have the seatbelt warning light, which lets the driver know when anyone in the vehicle hasn’t got their seatbelt on – some cars have an additional noise to accompany the warning light. Drivers and passengers must wear a seatbelt at all times or suffer a fine of up to £5002.