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Understanding car dashboard lights - what do dashboard lights mean?

Lights on the dash? They can be a sign of a mechanical or electrical problem, so shouldn't be ignored. Here's what they mean

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Common car dash lights and what they mean

“Uh oh. What does that red light mean…?!”

It’s a familiar feeling to motorists across the world. One moment you’re cruising down the road, enjoying the drive and thinking about what takeaway you might order on Friday night. And then, all you can think about is what’s wrong with your car.

Most modern cars have a number of different dashboard lights, all sat there peacefully minding their own business. When one of them lights up, it can be a real concern and could mean it's time for some car maintenance. Especially because most of us aren’t 100% familiar with all the icons and know exactly what they mean.

Basically warning signs that one of the car’s electrical monitors has been triggered, they’re there to alert you to a potential issue you need to know about. They’re not there to panic you, but you do need to familiarise yourself with the basics.

Battery light

Looks like: A rectangle, possibly with plus and minus signs in it.

What it means: Your car’s battery isn’t charged and/or is failing to charge up. It may be an issue with your wiring, the alternator or the battery itself. Either way, it will require a mechanic or roadside engineer to examine it as soon as possible.

A close up image of a red oil light on a car dashboard

Oil warning light

Looks like: A lamp that looks like one a genie might use, often with droplets pouring out.

What it means: There seems to be an issue with your oil pressure. Stop when it’s next safe to do so and check your oil level.

If you need more and have some, top up the level. Your vehicle’s owner’s manual should teach you how to do it.

If refilling doesn’t fix the issue and the light is still on, there will likely be an issue with the filter or pump that needs addressing.

Brake light

Looks like: An exclamation mark, often within a circle and sometimes a pair of brackets.

What it means: As with all of these, there’s a chance that a flashing icon on the dash simply means that you have a broken sensor. More likely, however, is that there is a fault with your brakes.

While it may be serious, don’t panic. Apply your brakes slowly and sensibly and test them. It could be a problem with your brake pads or a brake fluid leak. Pull over and seek assistance.

Engine light

Looks like: a simplified diagram of a car engine.

What it means: There’s likely some sort of issue with the engine so you should stop, so long as it's safe to do so, and turn the engine off.

Unlike most of the other icons on this list, the engine management light can flash for several reasons. There’s no one specific fault that might cause it to light up amber.

You’re not expected to do much about it. Just get it down to a mechanic’s garage at your earliest convenience for a check-up.

Often, your car will go into a self-protect or 'limp' mode, which can see it limit the revs.

Door lights

Looks like: You may be looking at a car from above with what looks like wings depicting two open driver and front passenger doors.

What it means: Someone’s not shut a door fully. Get anyone in the car to assist in working out which door it is and - safely - close it.

Can’t work it out? It may well be the boot.

Engine temperature light

Looks like: A basic thermometer standing in two wavy lines signifying liquid.

What it means: As you might be able to guess, this icon - when flashing - signifies a high temperature in the engine. You may be in danger of overheating.

Watch for smoke and pull over. You’ll want to speak to a mechanic or call roadside assistance. It’s possibly a coolant issue, but it could be more serious.

Anti-lock braking system

Looks like: The letters ‘ABS’ inside a circle and/or brackets.

What it means: See this flash up and you’ll know pretty quickly there’s something up with your ABS system.

Ideally, it’ll be working, but it’s not the end of the world if there’s an issue, you can safely complete your journey with the flashing light. Just get it seen to when you next can.

If the brake warning light is also flashing though, that could well suggest the brakes are failing. Pull over.

Low fuel light

Looks like: A petrol station pump icon.

What it means: Anyone who’s ever run a car on a budget will be pretty familiar with this one - your tank needs filling.

You usually have around 40-50miles of petrol left, depending on how you drive.

In the meantime, use some efficient driving tips like staying in the highest gear possible for the speed limit to save fuel.

Seatbelt lights

Looks like: Someone sat down with a large diagonal line struck through them.

What it means: One or more of the passengers in the car hasn’t buckled up.


Looks like: Someone sat down with a bag inflated in front of their face.

What it means: One or more of the car's airbags have a problem. It could be an issue with a sensor or a connector, or something more substantial. Airbags are critical in ensuring passengers are safe, so it's advised that you seek professional help to diagnose the problem immediately.

Dashboard light colours

The severity of the issue with your car is usually indicated via a handy red, amber and green traffic light system.

  • Green means everything is working correctly.

  • Amber is telling you that there’s a small issue that may need your attention when it’s next safe or convenient to check it out.

  • Red, of course, is a little more urgent. There is a problem which is quite possibly hazardous. You really need to pull over and investigate the issue.

Keeping on top of car servicing and MOTs can help avoid these dreaded dashboard lights from making an appearance.

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