Common car warning lights

Common warning lights in your car

Have you ever been driving on the motorway when a light you don’t recognise suddenly appears on your dashboard? It can be scary but it’s important to not panic. If possible, pull over and try and work out what your car is trying to communicate to you. 

Generally, there are two types of dashboard warning lights: red and orange. A red warning light means there’s a serious issue with the car. An orange warning light means the engine management system – the computer that runs the engine – has detected a fault. With an orange light you can generally continue to drive but you should head to your mechanic or local service centre for a diagnosis and repair as soon as possible. 

For your, and your vehicle’s safety, it’s a good idea to familiarise yourself with the important dashboard warning symbols so you have an idea of the problem you are dealing with. To help you identify them, we’ve put together a helpful guide. 

Engine temperature warning

This is a red warning light with a thermometer symbol and it means your engine is overheating. The cause could be the engine coolant (also known as antifreeze) level is low but it can happen if you have a coolant leak, an engine fan or radiator/ coolant reservoir cap malfunction, or a serious mechanical problem.

Most modern cars don’t have a temperature gauge, so if your engine temperature light comes on, you should pull over as soon and safely as possible, then switch off the engine and let it cool. You should then call your mechanical breakdown service and get them to check for the reason, so you don’t have to risk driving it to your mechanic and potentially cause further damage.

Oil pressure warning

You can identify this symbol by recognising the red warning light image of an old school oil can. When this light appears on your dashboard, this means one of two things: the engine oil is running low, or the engine has lost oil pressure. 

If your engine oil is running low, this can starve the engine of oil, leaving it with no lubrication and damaging the internal system. The same applies if you lose oil pressure. In either case, pull over and turn off your car engine. Get your car checked as soon as possible so a mechanic can top your car up with oil and/or identify and address whatever is causing the low oil or low oil pressure. 

Brake warning

If your brake warning light appears, this means your parking brake is engaged, or there’s a problem with your braking system. The first thing you should do is check if your parking brake is engaged by setting, then releasing it while your vehicle is in park. If the light is still on, even with the parking brake unengaged, then call for help from roadside assistance.

Airbag warning

This red warning symbol looks like a person with a seatbelt on and their airbag deployed. This means something is wrong with one of your airbags, or the entire airbag system. You should get it checked immediately because your car’s airbags keep you and your passengers safe during accidents.

Battery charge warning

If the symbol looks like a red battery, it means there’s a problem with your vehicle’s charging system. Things to consider include a loose or damaged battery cable, which is causing it to not charge correctly, a faulty alternator, or another electrical fault. Either way, you need to get it checked so it can be diagnosed and resolved.

Engine warning

If you see an orange light with an engine symbol, it means there’s potentially a fault with your car’s engine. There are many things that could trigger this warning light, such as an open, loose, or cracked petrol cap, low oil pressure, or a serious mechanical problem. Whatever the cause, you should get it attended to as soon as possible.

If you haven’t noticed a change in the way your car drives and there are no unusual sounds and smells, you can continue to drive – preferably home or to your nearest mechanic. If the engine light is red and/or flashing, stop driving and call for help from your mechanical repair company, as this is a sign there’s a major problem that could cause serious damage to your engine if you ignore it.

Stability/traction control light

This is an orange light that looks like a car driving on a windy lane. This indicates that your vehicle’s traction control system is activated and it’s using your anti-lock brake system (ABS). Continue to drive as normal but be aware of slippery conditions. If the light continues to stay on, there might be a fault with the system and you should get it checked.

Anti-lock brake system (ABS) warning 

ABS is a safety anti-skid braking system that’s designed to prevent your car’s brakes from locking up in low-grip situations. If the orange ABS warning light is on, this could mean your brake fluid level is low, or there’s something wrong with the system. Since this is such an important safety feature, get a mechanic to diagnose the issue as soon as possible.

More often than not, warning lights are a sign there’s a serious issue with your vehicle and you should get it checked as soon as possible. If you find yourself in a situation where a red warning light has come on, you shouldn’t drive your car any further. Ensure peace of mind by getting mechanical repair insurance, which gives you 24-hour roadside assistance covers you for unexpected repair bills. 

Find out more about Autolife’s Mechanical Repair Insurance.