back to articles | May 07, 2024 | Moses Mwangi

Categories: Useful Automotive Information

Car Warning Lights: Everything You Need to Know


Car warning lights are how a vehicle communicates, telling you when something needs your attention. However, because there are so many, it can be confusing, especially for a first-time car owner.

While all car manufacturers usually discuss car warning lights in the owner's manual, most drivers rarely read it. What they don't know is that these lights can help prevent breakdowns, ensure safety on the road, and extend the vehicle's life. For this reason, it's important to learn what each light means before you hit the road. This guide will cover common warning lights and their meanings.

Check engine light

An engine is the most expensive part of a car. Therefore, most drivers get scared when they sense any issues with it. The check engine light appears as an orange or yellow engine block but may also have the word "check engine" in some vehicles. It usually indicates issues with the engine management system like a loose gas cap, a faulty sensor, a spark plug problem, or a more serious issue like a catalytic converter failure.

A steady illumination usually indicates a non-emergency issue but should be checked by a mechanic as soon as possible. However, if it is red or flashing, it could mean something more serious that could damage the vehicle if ignored. Pull over and get a mechanic. They'll do a diagnostic test to pinpoint the problem.

Oil pressure warning light

The oil pressure warning light appears as a red oil can or just the word "OIL" in some vehicles. It indicates a problem with your engine's oil pressure.

Engine oil is the lifeblood circulating throughout the engine to lubricate moving parts and reduce friction. Proper oil pressure ensures all this lubrication happens effectively and prevents excessive wear and tear on your engine components. When this light appears, it means the oil pressure in your engine has dropped below a safe level. This can happen due to low oil levels, dirty oil, a faulty oil pump, or a clogged oil filter.

If you see the oil pressure light appear, pull over to a safe location and turn off the engine as soon as possible. Continued driving can cause significant damage, such as a breakdown or fire. Check the oil level and add if it's low. However, if the oil is sufficient, the issue could be the oil pump or the oil pressure sensor, so call a mechanic to check it out.

Coolant temperature warning light

The coolant temperature warning light appears as a red thermometer. When it turns on, it shows that the coolant temperature has exceeded a safe limit and your engine is overheating. This can happen due to low coolant levels, malfunctioning cooling system components, or internal engine issues.

Extreme heat is detrimental to your engine. If you continue driving with the warning light on, you can warp engine components and might end up with expensive repairs or even engine failure. Pull over and turn off the engine. Allow it to cool completely before checking the coolant level.

Once the engine has cooled, open the hood carefully (be mindful of hot steam) and check your coolant reservoir level. If the level is low, add some coolant, but distilled water can also be a temporary solution before you reach a service station. Get the car checked by a mechanic to identify the leak or the cause of the overheating.

Battery warning light

The battery warning light appears as a red battery symbol. It indicates a problem with your vehicle's electrical system, specifically the battery or the charging system that keeps it running.

It could be that the alternator or voltage regulator isn't functioning correctly or that the battery itself is failing. This could be due to a dead battery, loose or corroded battery cables, or internal damage within the battery. While you can still drive for a short distance, get the battery checked or replaced as soon as possible.

Brake warning light

A red exclamation mark within a circle around it means there is an issue with your braking system. Even if you always ignore other warning lights, please don't ignore this one unless you have a death wish. Your brakes are one of the most critical safety systems in your car.

The brake warning light can indicate several issues, including low brake fluid, worn-out brake pads, engaged parking brakes, or ABS malfunction. Once you see this light, find a safe place to pull over as soon as possible and turn off the engine. Check if the parking brakes are disengaged, but if that's not the issue, don't attempt to diagnose the problem yourself. Have your car towed to a qualified mechanic for a thorough brake system inspection.

Tire pressure monitoring system (TPMS) light

TPMS light is a symbol that looks like a horseshoe with an exclamation point in the middle. It indicates that at least one of your tires is significantly under-inflated or over-inflated compared to the recommended pressure. This can be due to a slow leak, a sudden temperature change, or incorrect inflation during a tire change.

This warning should not be taken lightly because improper tire pressure can impact your car's handling, stability, and fuel efficiency. Underinflated tires can lead to increased tire wear, blowouts, and reduced stopping distances. On the other hand, overinflated tires can decrease traction and make the ride less comfortable.

Once you see this light, pull over and confirm the issue, use a tire pressure gauge to measure it, and then adjust the pressure to the recommended level. If the light stays on after adjusting the pressure, have a mechanic inspect the system.

Airbag warning light

An airbag warning light indicates a problem with your vehicle's Supplemental Restraint System (SRS), which includes airbags and seatbelt pre-tensioners. This could mean one or more airbags might not deploy properly in the event of a collision, posing a serious safety risk to you and your passengers. Once you see the light, get the car to a mechanic as soon as possible because driving without airbags is too risky.

Seatbelt warning light

The seatbelt warning light is a reminder to buckle up for safety. It's a simple yet essential feature that can make a big difference in the event of an accident.

The light illuminates when the car detects a passenger seat (or the driver's seat) is occupied, but the seatbelt is not fastened. This could be because someone is sitting on the seat without buckling up, or an object might be placed on the seat, which triggers the sensor. The warning light is often accompanied by an audible chime or buzzer that continues to sound until the seatbelt is fastened.

Fuel gauge warning light

The fuel gauge warning light resembles a gas pump but may also appear as "low fuel." It indicates that the fuel level has dipped below a pre-set limit, usually around 10-15% of your car's fuel tank capacity. The exact threshold can vary depending on your car's make and model.

Door ajar warning light

The door-ajar warning light looks like a red sedan with open doors. As the symbol suggests, it indicates one or more of your vehicle's doors (including the trunk or hatchback) aren't fully closed and latched.

Firmly shut all the car doors (including the trunk/hatchback) until you hear a distinct latching sound and the warning light turns off. If it doesn't turn off after closing all doors, take the car to a mechanic. Some modern vehicles usually pinpoint the specific door that is ajar.

Traction control light

The traction control light shows that your car's traction control system is activated. This system uses your ABS to determine if one wheel is rotating faster than others. If it detects that a wheel is skidding, it applies the brakes until the vehicle regains traction. This is highly helpful when you are driving in rain or snow.

While you can drive with the traction control light on, be cautious of slippery conditions. Your mechanic should inspect the system as soon as possible to ensure your car runs safely in inclement conditions.

Power steering warning light

Also known as the electric power steering (EPS) light, this car warning light shows that there is an issue with the power steering. For electric-powered systems, this issue can be as simple to fix as rebooting a computer. Look for a safe place to stop and try turning off the car and back on again after 30 seconds. However, if the light persists, take your car to a mechanic for a check-up as soon as possible.

Summing it up

Car warning lights are how a vehicle communicates when something needs your attention. While not all warnings need immediate attention, you should not ignore them for your safety and your vehicle's health. If unsure what they mean, check your owner's manual or consult an experienced mechanic.

With that said, are you looking to buy your first car but can't afford to pay for it in cash? Apply for an auto loan now to begin your journey of owning your dream car.