What Are Your Dashboard Lights Telling You?

dashboard lights

I have often found myself in some lonely parking lot or at the side of the road, squinting at a warped and sun-faded owner’s manual to try and figure out what my car was trying to tell me. The mere sight of my dashboard illuminating with another unintelligible wingding filled me with dread. Is my car overheating? Is there something wrong with my headlights? What does the check engine light mean? My dad called them idiot lights, and considering my reaction to them, that seemed fair.

But in reality, there’s no reason to be anxious about dashboard lights. They are just the way that the car communicates with the driver. Though many of the lights are merely notifications, warning lights in particular can deliver important information about vehicle maintenance. It is important to be able to understand the meaning of your dashboard lights and know what to do in response to them. Paying attention to these lights and knowing what they mean can help you get more good years out of your car, and keep it running as tight as a drum.

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One of the difficulties that can come with deciphering dashboard light meanings is that the symbols vary between different makes and models of cars. Though the variation is often very slight, it is important to keep in mind that the symbols in your own car might look a little different than the ones seen here.

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Different types of dashboard lights

There are basically three grades of dash indicator lights: Green or Blue, Yellow or Orange, and Red.

Green or blue dashboard lights are notification lights, telling you that a feature of your car is active. They do not signal a fault or problem. Rather, they are an indication that these parts of your car are functioning exactly how you want them to function.

Yellow or orange dashboard lights are low-grade warning lights. There is a problem in your car that you should deal with in the very near future. Your car can usually still be driven a few miles, or the fix is one that can be easily taken care of, like closing your car door or pulling up to a gas station to fill your fuel tank.

Red dashboard lights are serious warning lights. You should stop immediately, or risk damage to the car (or worse, yourself). If you are out driving when you see a red warning light, pull over and deal with the problem.

If it requires attention from a professional, don’t drive down the block to get one. It could wind up damaging your vehicle further and costing you a small fortune. Contact a roadside assistance service like AAA instead. Continuing to drive your car without attending to the problem is incredibly dangerous and should not be attempted under any circumstances. Even if there’s an angry mob chasing after you, you still need to wear your seat belt. The exception to this rule is the Hazard Light symbol, which simply reminds the driver that they have engaged the hazard lights. This in itself is not an issue.

Dashboard lights decoded

In this infographic you can see a few of the most popular (and sometimes most confusing) dashboard lights out there. Many dashboard symbols use a sort of pictograph style code to help the driver decipher it. The Head Lamp symbol is, for example, usually illustrated as an illuminated light bulb. Most of them are pretty straight-forward, like the Low Fuel symbol or the Battery symbol. Some of the symbols can be confusing for some people, though. The Tire Pressure symbol is ostensibly supposed to be a cross-section of a car tire with an exclamation point in the middle, and treads on the bottom. In reality, however, it looks more like an exclamation point in parenthesis, floating over a stout fence. The Brake System dashboard light isn’t representative at all, deviating profoundly from the style of the other more illustrative symbols. The only way to instantly be able to recognize this symbol is simply by memorizing what it looks like.

Some dash indicator lights have lights that blink when the driver’s attention is especially urgent, though this is not the case for all vehicles. Once you become familiar with the symbol language of your car’s dashboard lights, you’ll be able to comfortably diagnose the reason they’re turning on. There used to be a time when the sight of an illuminating dashboard light would paralyze me, but now that I know the types of symbols used in my car I am able to travel freely and without fear.

A great way to remember what dashboard symbols mean is to write an article about them. Hey, it worked for me.

Look out, road, because this writer knows what’s going on when she leaves the car door open.

Have a unique dashboard light on your vehicle? Have one that you’re still not sure what it means? Let us know in the comments section. 

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15 Thoughts on “What Are Your Dashboard Lights Telling You?

  1. Sarah, that’s interesting because the Toyota Avalon either shows the symbol in yellow when the key fob is not present but it’s not displayed at all (it disappears) when the key fob is present. Thanks for the article.

    1. It looks like this is a version of the “check engine” light. This means that the engine must be checked by a professional as soon as possible. It could also be a version of the “maintenance required” light, which is a reminder to take your car in for maintenance at certain times. Consult your car owner manual for the exact meaning. Either way, I would make an appointment with a trusted mechanic.
      – Sarah

  2. Sarah, the symbol of the key with the exclamation point across it means that the key fob is not present and the car cannot be started without it. Your chart has it incorrectly do displayed as the opposite.

    1. Actually, when the symbol is in green, it means that the key fob is present. The symbol to show that the key fob is missing is usually the same symbol, but in red. If it is in yellow, it usually means that the key fob has low battery or needs to be replaced. Thanks for reading!
      – Sarah

  3. Sarah! You are a wonderful writer. Your information was clear and easy to follow and actually made me laugh out loud with your delightful humor. Thank you ?

    1. Hi Mary,

      Of course. I’ll forward your request and make sure you don’t receive the daily emails from now on.


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