Your dashboard lights could warn you of serious issues with your car. Here’s what to watch out for.

Most cars are designed with monitoring systems that alert drivers to potential problems by illuminating small symbols on the dash. The early heads-up helps you tackle little issues before they cause major damage or create unsafe driving conditions. But what good are dashboard lights when you don’t know what they mean? Here are some of the most common signals to show up, so you can stay safe and save cash in the long run.

Brake system warning light in car dashboard. 3D rendered illustration. Close up view.

Brake Warning Light

This could mean your parking brake is engaged or it could be a sign of something much more serious in the system, says Jiffy Lube. If you can rule out the parking brake, seek the immediate help of a trusted mechanic. A healthy brake system isn’t something you want to gamble on.

A 3D render of an extreme closeup of an illuminated high temperature dashboard light on a car dashboard panel background

Coolant Temperature

Could be anything from a small leak to a broken thermostat or a blown head gasket. Without coolant, your engine runs hot, and when it gets hot enough, bad things happen. You could need a new engine, according to YourMechanic. Check your coolant level and call the shop.

Car dashboard light signs on black background

Oil Pressure

Oil keeps your engine lubricated. Without enough oil or if the oil isn’t being moved around with enough force, your engine will overheat quickly, parts will wear and break, and you’ll need a new motor, YourMechanic notes. Have this checked by an expert immediately.

Speedometer

Check Engine Light

The limitation of early warning lights is they can only tell you there’s a problem, not exactly what the problem is. In fact, the problem may be the monitoring sensor itself and not the component. The check engine light is a scary one to see, but according to AutoGuide.com, it could mean anything from a broken oxygen sensor to a dead cylinder, or worse. Enlist a professional with an OBD II scanner to pull up trouble codes and diagnose the issue.

Tire Pressure Warning Icon

Tire Pressure

Modern cars are equipped with sensors to alert you to low tire pressure. Maybe you ran over a nail, or maybe it’s just time to add a little air. YourMechanic suggests inspecting for obvious damage or flats, then get the car to a service station.

Car speed meter closeup in vibrant colors

Power Steering

If you lose power steering, turning the wheel suddenly takes a lot of effort, according to Meineke. This can be especially dangerous at high speeds. Get this checked out before you lose the assist. A quick fix can save wasted energy driving.

ABS light. Car dashboard in close upone button with traction control symbol (3d render)

ABS/Traction Control

Both the anti-lock braking system (ABS) and traction control lights indicate problems with systems that keep the car under control in abnormal conditions. Since you rarely see an emergency coming, they need to be kept in top shape. According to Cars.com, traction control issues need to be diagnosed with a scanning tool, while you can tell the ABS isn’t right when you’re braking.

Close-up shot of a carAn extreme closeup of an illuminated orange petrol indicator dashboard light on an isolated black textured backgorund

Windshield Fluid/Low Fuel

These are pretty straightforward, as is the remedy: fill up the tank. Obviously, the fuel is more pressing than the wiper fluid, but adding the latter is easy to do and keeps your vision clear.

Change engine oil soon warning light on dashboard

Change Engine Oil

Many cars monitor oil condition and mileage as it relates to your last oil change. You know it’s the right thing to do, so don’t put it off for too long.

There are more warning lights out there and they vary by manufacturer, so check your owner’s manual if something pops up that you can’t identify. The important thing is to know that red and yellow dashboard lights are warning you about something for a reason. Ignore them at your peril, and know that doing so could mean major repairs down the road, if not an imminent safety hazard.

Image Credit: Flickr

Blair Lampe

About the AuthorBlair Lampe

Blair Lampe is a New York-based freelance writer and mechanic.  She travels frequently and on a budget, which she documents on her website TheGreyBeyond.