There is nothing like getting behind the wheel only to mysteriously have a symbol illuminate on your dashboard. While some car dashboard symbols and meanings are easy to figure out, others leave you wondering if something is seriously wrong.
Dashboard light colors
The warning lights and symbols vary somewhat from one vehicle make and model to another, but there are general similarities regardless of the manufacturer. Dashboard symbols are color-coded in red, yellow or orange and blue or green.
Red dashboard icons are the most urgent and shouldn’t be ignored. It may even be unsafe to continue driving depending on the specific symbol. Some common red dashboard symbols include low oil pressure and airbag warning lights.
Yellow or orange
Dashboard symbols that are yellow or orange should be thought of as an advisory or warning. While it may be safe to continue driving, you’ll want to take your vehicle to a mechanic as soon as possible. Anti-lock braking system (ABS) and the engine management lights are common yellow or orange symbols.
Green or blue
A green or blue light on your dashboard is the best color to see. These lights are often more informational and indicate a feature is in use. High beam lights are an example of a dashboard symbol that will illuminate blue or green when turned on.
Warning light symbols and indicators
The exact symbol on your dashboard may be slightly different than the icons below, but these images will give you a general idea of your car dashboard symbols and meanings.
Airbag warning – There is a problem with the airbag system. It’s risky to drive a vehicle if there is a chance the airbags won’t deploy. An airbag problem isn’t something you should try to fix on your own. A mechanic can determine what is causing the problem and how to fix it.
Anti-lock braking system (ABS) – It’s not uncommon for this icon to briefly illuminate when you start your car, however there is a problem if it doesn’t turn off once you’re driving. The ABS prevents your brakes from locking up when you make a sudden stop. The light can indicate several problems including broken wheel speed sensors, hydraulic pump issues, low brake fluid or even a blown fuse. While your brakes will still work, it’s best to have the problem evaluated by a professional.
Battery/charging system – This light indicates the vehicle is operating on battery power only and you have a short amount of time before it stops working. If your charging system isn’t functioning, eventually the battery won’t be recharged. Your battery is responsible for making things like your stereo, air conditioner and lights operate. If your battery/charging system light turns on, shut off things like the aforementioned electronics and make your way to a mechanic. If a mechanic isn’t nearby, pull over to a safe location incase your vehicle won’t turn on again and you need roadside assistance. The problem may stem from needing a new battery, broken alternator or a faulty computer system.
Brake system – As the name indicates, this means there is an issue with the braking system. If you see this light while driving, pull over and ensure the handbrake isn’t on. If your emergency brake isn’t causing the problem, the light may be alerting you to low brake fluid levels, worn brake pads or a sensor failure.
Check engine/engine management – If this light comes on while driving, you’re probably safe to continue to your destination. Try tightening your gas cap – this can cause fuel to evaporate and a sensor to go off. If the light is still illuminated, schedule an appointment to get your vehicle checked out. If the light is flashing, this is indicative of a more serious problem and you should not drive.
Electronic stability program (ESP) – This light often turns and stays on due to a faulty ABS sensor, steering sensor, brake pedal switch or the system has been turned off. Your vehicle should be checked out, however if the light begins flashing while you are driving on a slippery road, the light means the system is functioning correctly and will turn off on its own.
Engine temperature/coolant temperature – Your engine is overheating. Low coolant (antifreeze) levels, failed thermostat or a faulty water pump may be the culprit. If you see this light turn on, pull over and wait for your engine to cool down. Ignoring this light could not only be unsafe but could result in costly damage.
Glow plug – This symbol will illuminate when the ignition is on until the plugs warm up. If it’s flashing, a glow plug may be worn out.
High beams – This symbol only appears when the high beams are in use. You’ll want to turn these lights on while driving in areas with poor lighting. Remember to be a courteous driver and turn your high beams off if another vehicle is in front of you.
Low fuel level – Get to the closest gas station if you see this symbol. Your vehicle is running very low on gas. How many miles you have left before your tank is empty when the symbol turns on varies depending on the vehicle. Turn off devices like your air conditioner and drive conservatively until you fill your tank. It’s not a good idea to get in the habit of driving on fumes – not only does the practice increase your risk of being stranded, but it could cause expensive damage to your fuel pump.
Oil pressure – You either need more oil or your system isn’t moving enough oil to your engine. You should pull over, wait for your vehicle to cool down, then check the dipstick. If you are simply low on oil, this is an easy fix. Don’t forget to check your owner’s manual to ensure you are using the correct type of oil. If low oil isn’t the problem, don’t wait to have a professional inspect your vehicle. An engine that isn’t adequately lubricated will wear out and require costly repairs.
Power steering – Your steering wheel will become difficult to turn because the power assist isn’t working correctly. Pull over to investigate the problem. If your vehicle has a hydraulic power steering system, a leak causing low steering wheel fluid may be the root of the problem. With an electronic system, simply turning your car off and on may make the light turn off. Otherwise, the issue may be a loose connection to the car battery.
Seat belt indicator – This light will appear if you, or a front seat passenger, don’t have seat belts on. Buckle up to turn this light off and potentially save your life. Nearly half of the people who died in a car accident in 2019 were not wearing a seat belt, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
Traction control system (TCS) – This feature helps your vehicle maintain traction on slick roads. This light appears when the system kicks in. If you see this light when you are driving in normal conditions, there may be an issue with the sensor and a mechanic should investigate.