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Decoding car warning lights: what they're trying to tell you

December 12, 2023

Picture this: you're driving along enjoying your favourite tunes when suddenly a car warning light appears on your car's dashboard.

It's important to understand what these lights are trying to tell you, as they can be crucial for your own safety and maintaining the performance of your vehicle.

In this blog post, we’ll explore the most common car warning lights and the recommended actions to take when they appear.

The different colours of car warning lights

Car warning lights use different colours to indicate the severity or urgency of an issue. These colours generally fall into three main categories:

  • Red warning lights: red lights signal a serious issue or potential safety hazard. When a red warning light appears, you should stop your vehicle as soon as it is safe to do so and address the problem immediately
  • Yellow/amber warning lights: yellow or amber warning lights indicate a potential issue or malfunction that requires attention but may not be as urgent as a red light. You should still address these issues promptly to prevent further damage or potential safety risks
  • Green/blue warning lights: green or blue warning lights are informational indicators, letting you know that a specific system or feature is active or functioning correctly. These lights are typically not warnings, but it's essential to be aware of their meaning

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11 most common car warning lights

Whilst there are over 100 different car warning lights that could appear on your car’s dashboard, these 11 dashboard lights are the most common:

  1. Airbag warning light
  2. Anti-lock brake system (ABS) warning light
  3. Battery warning light
  4. Brake warning light
  5. Electronic stability problem (ESP) system light
  6. Electric system warning light
  7. Engine management light (Check engine light)
  8. Engine oil warning light
  9. Engine temperature warning light
  10. Fuel indicator warning light
  11. Low tyre pressure warning light

We've outlined what each light means in detail below.

Keep in mind that not all vehicles will have all these warning lights, and some may have additional lights depending on the specific make, model, and features. It's essential to consult your vehicle's owner manual for a comprehensive list and explanation of the warning lights specific to your car.

Car dashboard warning lights explained

Engine warning lights

There are three different engine warning lights that point towards a problem with engine performance.

  1. Engine management light or check engine light: the check engine light is usually an orange or yellow symbol resembling an engine. It can indicate a variety of issues, ranging from minor to severe. Common reasons for the light include emission system problems, a faulty oxygen sensor, or even a loose fuel cap. When this light appears, first check your fuel cap and ensure it’s properly tightened. If the light persists, visit a mechanic for further inspection
  2. Engine oil warning light: the engine oil warning light is typically red and displays an oil can symbol. This light can be triggered by low oil pressure, an oil leak, or a faulty oil pressure sensor. When this light comes on, check your vehicle’s oil levels and top up if necessary. If the issue persists or you suspect an oil leak, consult a mechanic
  3. Engine temperature warning light: this warning light is usually red or blue, with a symbol of a thermometer in liquid. It alerts you when the engine is overheating, which could be caused by a coolant leak or a malfunctioning thermostat. If this light appears, pull over safely and allow the engine to cool down. Check the coolant levels and refill if necessary. If the problem persists, seek professional assistance
Symbols of engine car warning lights

Brake warning lights

There are two common warning lights that illuminate when there is a problem with your car braking system. These are:

  1. Brake system warning light: the brake system warning light is typically red and features an exclamation mark inside a circle with parentheses. Common reasons for this light include low brake fluid or worn brake pads. When this light appears, check your brake fluid levels and inspect the brake pads
Driving with your hand brake on can cause this light to come on – make sure this is the first thing you check! Always drive with your handbrake off

2. Anti-lock Braking System (ABS) warning light: the ABS warning light is usually yellow and displays the letters "ABS." This light indicates a problem with the anti-lock braking system or damaged wheel speed sensors. When this light comes on, visit a mechanic to diagnose and repair the issue

The ABS is a safety feature designed to prevent the wheels of a vehicle from locking up during braking, especially on slippery surfaces or during sudden stops. By doing so, it allows the driver to maintain steering control under heavy braking by preventing a skid

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Symbols of brake and ABS warning lights

Battery and electrical system warning lights

  1. Battery warning light: this warning light is typically red and features a battery symbol. It can be triggered by alternator issues, battery problems, or loose connections. When you see this light check for loose connections, if safe to do so. If the problem persists, consult a mechanic
  2. Electrical system warning light: the electrical system in a car plays a crucial role in operating various functionalities, including the vehicle's ignition, lighting, and infotainment systems. The warning light is often red and displays a lightning bolt symbol. It warns you of a malfunctioning electrical system or alternator problems. To address this issue, visit a mechanic for further assessment
symbol battery and electrical system warning lights

Tyre pressure warning lights

  1. Electronic stability problem (ESP) warning light: the ESP warning light is typically yellow and displays a symbol of a car with two curved lines behind it. The ESP system helps to improve vehicle stability by detecting and reducing loss of traction while driving. A persistent ESP light could indicate a problem with the system, the wheel speed sensors, or the steering angle sensor. If the light stays on or frequently activates, consider contacting a mechanic for a thorough inspection and diagnosis
  2. Low tyre pressure warning light: this light is usually yellow and features an exclamation mark inside a tyre symbol. It warns you of low tyre pressure, a puncture, or a malfunctioning tyre pressure monitoring system (TPMS). Check your tyre pressure and inflate as needed. If you suspect a TPMS issue, contact a mechanic
The recommended tyre pressure is specified by the vehicle's manufacturer and can be found in the owner's manual, on a sticker in the door on the driver's side, glove box door, or fuel door. Maintaining the correct tyre pressure can extend the life of your tyres, improve your vehicle's safety, and maximise fuel efficiency

You should also check your tyre tread when you do this to ensure they meet legal tread depth. Read more about checking tyre tread depth in our blog.

symbol for tyre pressure and stability car warning lights

Airbag and fuel warning lights

  1. Airbag warning light: the airbag warning light is typically yellow and features a symbol of a person with an airbag deployed. This light indicates a potential issue with the airbag system, such as a malfunction or a faulty sensor. When this light appears, visit a mechanic for diagnosis and repair to ensure the safety of you and your passengers
  2. Fuel indicator warning light: the fuel indicator warning light is usually yellow or amber and displays a fuel pump symbol. It warns you of a low fuel level or a faulty fuel sensor. If this light appears, refuel your vehicle promptly. If the problem persists or you suspect a sensor issue, contact a mechanic for further inspection
Symbols for airbag and fuel car warning lights

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Understanding your car's warning lights is crucial for maintaining its performance and ensuring your safety on the road. When a warning light appears, it's essential to address the issue promptly and consult a professional when necessary.

By being proactive with car maintenance and safety, you can prevent costly repairs and ensure a smooth driving experience.

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