Warning Lights: What does it all mean?


Warning Lights: What does it all mean?

There’s a good reason to take notice of the ‘check engine’ and other warning lights that may appear in the dashboard of your vehicle: They’re telling you something. Are you listening? Many folks don’t. On TV’s “The Big Bang Theory,” a running joke for several seasons was technologically deficient and cash-strapped Penny continuing to ignore the illuminated “check engine” light on her car’s dashboard. The vehicle eventually breaks down. As plumes of smoke come pouring out from under the hood, quirky lead character Sheldon notes in false cheerfulness, “Good news! The light just went out!”

If any of the warning lights on your vehicle’s dashboard stays on after the vehicle is started or blinks on while it’s running, it’s typically a sign of trouble that needs to be dealt with by an automotive technician, immediately in some cases.

Here’s a quick review of these lights, what they indicate and how they should be addressed.

Brakes Plus - Warning Lights - ABS

This signifies a problem with the car’s Antilock Braking System. The brakes themselves should still work, but the function that helps prevent skidding on slick pavement may be disabled. Have the car checked out when it’s convenient to do so.


Showing simply as ALT, if illuminated, it means the car’s alternator has stopped supplying electrical power to the charging system. At this point, there’s a limited amount of time before the battery will run down and the car will stop running. Turn off the climate control and other accessories to save power, head for the nearest repair shop or find a safe place to pull over and call for a tow.

Brakes Plus - Warning Lights - brake

This can indicate something simple, like the emergency brake being engaged, low brake fluid or a major issue, especially if braking performance is noticeably diminished. Check to see if the emergency brake is released; otherwise make an appointment to have the system examined ASAP.

Brakes Plus - Warning Lights - check-engine

This silhouette of a car engine usually means there’s something wrong with the vehicle’s emissions system. This can be as simple as a loose gas cap, or a more significant issue like a bad oxygen sensor, that can potentially lead to more serious problems. The car will run, but its fuel economy could be adversely affected and it will probably fail an emissions test. Be sure to have the problem corrected soon.

Brakes Plus - Warning Lights - oil

When you see this word or a picture of an oil can lights up it means the engine oil pressure is low; have the car checked by a technician immediately.

The most important job of your vehicles oil is to lubricate the engine and carry heat away from your engine. As the oil in your vehicle circulates through your engine, it continuously lubricates the thousands of engine components that have to work together in order to make your car operational. As the oil moves it also picks up dirt and other small pieces of debris from the engine. While this helps to keep the engine free of these particles, over time the oil gets too dirty to be effective. This is why the oil has to be changed. Ignoring your warning light or failing to get your oil changed consistently will lead to engine failure.

Brakes Plus - Warning Lights - temp

If the word TEMP or a picture of a thermometer illuminates it means the car is overheating. It’s best to pull over and call a tow truck. If you’re a short distance away from home or a service shop, turn the heater on full blast to help relive the pressure. If possible, pull over, let the car cool sufficiently and fill the reservoir with a 50/50 percent mixture of coolant and (preferably distilled) water, then head for the shop.

Brakes Plus - Warning Lights - tire pressure

An image of a tire with an exclamation point means one of the tires is incorrectly inflated. Examine the tires and check the air pressure with a good quality gauge. If the tire is flat or severely underinflated, call for help or change the tire according to the manufacturer’s instructions. If necessary, have the tire repaired or replaced – it’s usually best to swap out tires in pairs, front or rear.

When a vehicle warning light goes on, make it a policy to get it checked out. Peace of mind and the safety of your family and friends are worth a little investment of your time.