When you turn the key in you car’s ignition does the dashboard light up like a Christmas tree? Maybe you’re wondering what all those warnings mean. Symbols that have been around for decades are easily recognizable, but as cars become more computer-controlled, manufacturers are adding new dashboard symbols that may be puzzling. Did you know that warning lights may be color coded, with yellow advising to inspect and red meaning there’s a major problem? This list will  help you figure out what those dashboard symbols indicate when lit.

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27 dashboard symbols deciphered

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1. Tire Pressure Monitoring System (TPMS)

Tire Pressure Monitoring System (TPMS)

The Tread Act of 2000 requires all new cars as of 2007 have the Tire Pressure Monitoring System (TPMS). So if your car predates 2007, you will not see this icon. When the TPMS warning light illuminates and stays on, one or more tires has low tire pressure. Inflate tires to the recommended pressure per square inch (PSI). Low tire pressure can cause tires to wear out quicker and create dangerous driving conditions.

2. Exterior Light Out Indicator

Exterior Light Out Indicator

This symbol indicates that an exterior light on your vehicle is burnt out. A simple lamp replacement will take care of this problem. Review your vehicle’s owner’s manual for lamp size and how to access lamps in exterior lights.

3. Low Key Fob Battery Indicator

Low Key Fob Battery IndicatorThis indicates that the battery inside the key fob needs replacing. Open the key fob and check for the battery number to buy a replacement. Once you’ve installed the new battery, the car’s computer will see the higher voltage and remove the warning.

4. Electronic Stability Program (ESP) Fault Warning

Electronic Stability Program (ESP) Fault WarningIf your vehicle illuminates an ESP Fault light, the chassis system needs attention. The ESP Fault light might be on because of a simple wiring issue or it could be much more serious. A quick scan can reveal the computer error code that further explains the problem

5. Security Alert

Security Alert
A flashing security alert light often means something in the car’s anti-theft system wiring is failing. Have a mechanic check it out, especially if your vehicle is one of the most stolen.

6. Overdrive Light Indicator

Overdrive Light IndicatorThe overdrive mechanism enables a vehicle to maintain a constant speed while decreasing engine speed to reduce wear and tear, plus improve fuel economy.

If the overdrive light stays on consistently, it only means your vehicle’s overdrive is manually turned off. On the other hand, a blinking overdrive light indicates a possible transmission problem, and it could be one of many issues. Get the vehicle inspected ASAP.

7. Brake Pads Warning

Brake Pads WarningNot all vehicle manufacturers put this symbol on dashboards, but knowing when your brake pads are getting worn could save costly repairs later. If this lights up on your dashboard, have a mechanic check your brake pads for wear and tear.

8. Brake Fluid Warning

Brake Fluid WarningIf the brake system light is flashing, your brake fluid level is getting low. If the brake system light stays lit, pump the brakes when stopping until you get somewhere safe because a consistent brake light means problems. Visit a trusted mechanic for an inspection ASAP.

9. Anti-Lock Brake System (ABS) Light

Anti-Lock Brake System (ABS) LightYour Anti-Lock Brake System (ABS) has an issue when this symbol is lit. Most often this is due to an electrical fault, such as a defective wheel speed sensor, defective power relay for the ABS module or pump, or a low fluid level in an ABS fluid reservoir.

10. Engine Temperature Warning

Engine Temperature WarningA lit engine temperature symbol indicates that the engine’s temperature has risen above the ideal range. This may light up for a variety of reasons. Check coolant level, radiator cap, fan operation; and look for coolant leaks.

11. Transmission Temperature Warning

Transmission Temperature WarningThere’s a reason why this looks similar to the coolant temperature warning light. Careful! If this light is on, your transmission might be operating at a significantly higher temperature than is safe. Check your transmission fluid level as well as the engine coolant level.

12. Reduced Power Warning

Reduced Power WarningIs your vehicle skipping or moving slower as if it is losing power? This could signal a potential problem with a battery or power system. Replacing the battery, spark plugs or plug wires can restore much of the power that your vehicle is missing.

13. Battery Charging Alert

Battery Charging AlertIf this light comes on while you are driving, turn off all the unnecessary electrical devices like A/C, radio, etc. and look for a suitable place to stop IMMEDIATELY. Your car may suddenly drain of energy and it’s best to be in a safe spot out of traffic. Call a tow truck and tow it to a repair shop.

If you’re in your own driveway when you notice this light, you may pop the hood and examine the battery terminals, alternator belt, and battery condition. The battery might not be charging right due to poor connection, or it might be time for a new battery altogether.

14. Check Engine Light

Check Engine LightThe check engine light is one of the most common dashboard warnings. It is part of your car’s onboard diagnostics (OBD) system. When lit, it can mean something as minuscule as a loose gas cap to serious engine trouble.  Your mechanic can diagnose the cause with a professional scan tool. This light may be lit for one of these 6 reasons or others; most mean a date with a mechanic.

  1.  Oxygen Sensor needs replacing
  2.  Gas Cap is loose
  3.  Catalytic Converter needs replacing
  4.  Mass Airflow Sensor needs replacing
  5.  Spark Plugs or Plug Wires need replacing
  6.  Exhaust Gas Recirculating (EGR) Valve

15. Door Ajar

Door Ajar light
Doors or trunk lids left ajar can drain batteries and possibly leave you stranded. Close the guilty culprit as soon as you notice the warning light.

16. Washer Fluid Level Low

Washer Fluid Level LowCertain times of the year, this is one feature you can’t live without especially when a large semi passes you on the highway, splashing dirty slush or road grime on your windshield that blocks your view. If this symbol is lit, refill your washer fluid as soon as possible. Just pop the hood, find the reservoir, and add fluid. Be sure to fill the correct reservoir. Look for the symbol on the cap.

17. Low Oil Pressure Warning

Low Oil Pressure WarningIf this light comes on, STOP driving immediately and turn the engine off. The engine can be severely damaged in a matter of seconds if oil pressure is lost. Call a tow truck and let a mechanic check it out. Be sure to tell the mechanic that this light came on so the he can take proper safety precautions. If you are a DIYer, tow the car to a place where you can check the oil. You can follow these tips in this video for checking it yourself. But even if there is oil, there may be an issue with oil pressure, like an oil pump or sensor going bad.

18. Oil Change Reminder

Oil Change Reminder
This light is a convenient reminder to change your oil every 3,000-10,000 miles. If you’re a DIY oil-changer, consider this helpful list of recommended oils from Popular Mechanics.

19. Service Vehicle Soon

Service Vehicle SoonThe importance of this light depends on the other vehicle warning lights. If this light is coupled by another light such as the ABS Light or Battery Charging Alert, have that specific issue taken care of. If no other lights come on with this one, have your mechanic run a diagnostic scanning tool to determine the problem.

20. Gas Cap Needs Tightening

Gas Cap Needs Tightening
If this light is on, your gas cap isn’t properly sealed. Fortunately, gas caps aren’t expensive and it happens to the best of us. That’s why many caps now come attached to the vehicle!

21. Cruise Control

Cruise ControlA steady light indicates that you have activated the vehicle’s cruise control feature. A flashing cruise control error light is common in some Subaru models. If this occurs, bring it to a mechanic to check what’s going on.

22. Low Traction Indicator

Low Traction IndicatorWhen lit, this symbol indicates that conditions are slippery and tire traction is low. Some vehicles incorporate the traction control warning with the ABS light, but others have a separate symbol for both. If this light is flashing, there might be a sensor issue.

23. Airbag Issues

Airbag IssuesThe Airbag Fault Light often comes on when the airbag control module senses an issue with one of the airbags. You can drive the vehicle with the airbag light on, but remember your car airbags won’t deploy if you get in an accident! Defective parts can be easily replaced and the airbag light can be reset.

24. Fog Lamp

Fog Lamp
This indicator simply tells you that your car’s fog lamps are on. It serves as a handy reminder to shut them off when you no longer need them.

25. Seat Belt Alert

Seat Belt AlertThis is a familiar symbol, yet some people still choose to ignore it. This warning may be a combination of a blinking dashboard light and a repeating chime. Both indicate that someone isn’t wearing a seatbelt. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), seatbelts have saved over 255,000 lives since 1975. Please buckle up. Seat belts save lives.

26. Convertible Roof Symbol

Convertible Roof Symbol
This means the convertible roof is either opening or closing. If this stays lit when the roof isn’t opening or closing, there’s a good chance there’s a fault in the system.

27. Dirty Air Filter

Dirty Air FilterYour car’s air filter is clogged when you see this symbol illuminate. This does not indicate an emergency, however, it’s best to change to a clean air filter when possible as your vehicle needs clean air to operate properly. If you are a do-it-yourself type, replacement air filters are relatively inexpensive. A clean air filter can improve:

  • Gas mileage
  • Acceleration
  • Engine life

When in Doubt

If your car has a dashboard symbol that is not on this list, consult your owner’s manual. Or if your car only has a handful of dashboard indicators, maybe it’s time for a more recent model. Check out our eBay car store.