Common car dashboard warning symbols & what they mean

September 21, 2018 | Allison Smith

Is your car trying to tell you something?

Whether you’re a new or seasoned driver, you’ve seen them - those amber and red-coloured  warning lights on your car’s dashboard that tell you something is up and that you need to take action or visit a mechanic.

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It’s important to know what the symbols you’re looking at mean because driving while they’re on could cause serious damage to your vehicle, not to mention drive up the cost of your repair bill.  

Never ignore any warning light - left unchecked, these issues could cause major safety issues. You’ll also want to have a mechanic regularly check your vehicle to ensure it’s safe and roadworthy.

15 common car dashboard warning symbols

Here are 15 symbols to be aware of - 11 are warning lights you should pay attention to. Four of these lights are related to your vehicle’s operation - they tell you what’s in use, but do not serve as warning signals.*

*Please note:  Your car’s dashboard may be different and the symbols listed below may appear in alternate designs and colours. Refer to your car’s owner’s manual for warning symbols specific to your vehicle.

Warning Lights

1. Check Engine Light (CEL)

What it looks like: Red, yellow or amber-coloured. Sometimes an engine-shaped icon with the word “Check” below it, or text that reads “Check Engine”. The light will be steady or blink depending on the issue.

What it means: This light serves as a warning that the computer in your vehicle has detected a part or system in your emission control system is malfunctioning.

A blinking light could indicate a severe engine misfire. Whatever colour the light is or whether it flickers, flashes or stays lit, drive to a repair shop immediately. If the light is blinking red or you have performance problems, turn off your vehicle and have it towed to the shop.

2. Low Oil Level Warning Light

What it looks like: Red, yellow or amber-coloured. Looks like a tea pot with a single drop.

What it means: Either your oil levels are too low or there’s a problem with the oil level sensor system. Another possibility: the oil pressure is too low and the results may be catastrophic. Check your oil levels immediately. If the level is okay, oil pressure is the culprit. Do not drive the vehicle, since low oil pressure can destroy an engine in under one minute. Also, keep up on oil changes and maintenance - you’ll avoid many costly repair bills.

3. ABS Warning Light

What it looks like: Amber, yellow, orange or red in colour. A circle with the letters “ABS” inside, and two brackets on opposite ends of the circle. the letters “ABS” can also appear in text.

What it means: Your anti-lock/anti-skid brake warning system will switch on if there’s an issue with the ABS brake system or regular brake system. It can also indicate low brake fluid, a failed or failing pump, wiring problem, bad sensor, etc.

Get this checked immediately - most of these diagnostics and repairs require special tools and knowledge. Depending on how your vehicle is handling and braking, you should drive to a trusted repair shop or call a tow. Note: It’s illegal to drive a heavy truck with an ABS light on.

4. Brake Fluid Level Warning Light

What it looks like: Yellow in colour. A circle with an exclamation point inside, and two brackets on opposite ends of the circle.


What it means: If brake fluid falls below a specific level, your brake fluid light will come on while there is still enough fluid in the brake system for it to function properly. This acts as a pre-warning to the Brake Hydraulic System Warning Light, which lets you know there’s a severe failure of the hydraulic system.

5. Brake Hydraulic System Warning Light

What it looks like: Red in colour. A circle with an exclamation point inside, and two brackets on opposite ends of the circle. Can also appear with the word “Brake” in red text.

What it means: You’ll see this light appear if there’s a problem within your brake hydraulic system. If it stays on, there’s a persistent issue, but if it switches on and off depending on whether you’re turning, it could mean low levels of brake fluid. Your system’s hydraulic pressure is rising and falling.

6. Battery Light or Charging Warning Light

What it looks like:  Yellow or amber in colour. A battery symbol with a minus on one side and a plus on the other.

What it means: This light comes on when the charging system isn’t charging the battery above a certain level. If the battery light comes on after you’ve turned the engine on and while you’re driving, there could be a problem with the charging system. There is enough battery left to power the vehicle, but not for very long. Turn off anything that draws power, including accessories, phone or device chargers, interior lights, AC/heat, stereo, etc. The problem could be anything from corrosion on the terminals to a dying battery.

Batteries tend to die in heat just as much as they do in cold. Have your battery checked by a licensed mechanic and replaced if it’s more than three years old.

Related: Make sure your vehicle is winter-ready with these tips.

7. Parking Brake Light

What it looks like: Red or orange in colour. A circle with the letter “P” inside, and two brackets on opposite ends of the circle.

What it means: Check that your parking brake or emergency brake is not engaged. If it stays on while you’re driving or flashes, your vehicle may need brake fluid. Check the fluid, top it up and if the light remains on, get your brakes inspected. You may also need pads or shoes. If a wrench appears underneath this light, the parking brake needs to be serviced by a mechanic.

8. Tire Pressure Monitoring System (TPMS) Light

What it looks like: A weird little yellow or orange symbol shaped like a pot, with an exclamation point inside it, sometimes with the letters “TPMS” next to it.

What it means: This TPMS electronic system monitors the air pressure in your tires. This light is an emergency warning because it means a tire has lost at least 25 percent of its pressure (much lower than your tires should be). Your tire may be leaking. Pull over and check the pressure of each of your tires (including your spare) using your gauge. The light can also appear if the TPMS sensor battery needs to be replaced or there’s interference between the sensor and the car.

The TPMS shouldn’t replace your tire gauge because by the time you see this, you’ve been driving on severely under-inflated tires for some time. Check tire pressure monthly.

9. Service Vehicle Soon Light

 What it looks like: Yellow in colour. Text reads “Service Vehicle Soon”.

 What it means: Not to be confused with the Service Engine Soon (SES) Light, this system tracks your chassis control systems, and the light will appear when there’s a problem with your electronic suspension system, brake hydraulic system, anti-lock brake system (ABS), or traction control system (TCS).  Refer to your owner’s manual, and call a mechanic for proper diagnosis and repair

10. Supplemental Restraint System Warning Light (aka Airbag Warning Light)

What it looks like: Red in colour, with a person wearing a seatbelt sitting behind a circle.


What it means: The Supplemental Restraint System Warning Light (SRS) is your airbag system, which deploys driver, passenger and side airbags. If you see this light stay on after your vehicle starts, there’s a problem somewhere in your system. The airbags will not deploy and your seat belt won’t tighten if you’re in an accident. Visit a qualified mechanic for proper inspection and diagnosis.

11. Traction Control Warning Light

What it looks like: Yellow or orange in colour. An icon of a car with swerve lines behind it.

What it means: Traction control works with your anti-lock brake system, which usually uses sensors to control traction automatically. Normally, you’ll see this light come on when you start the vehicle and when traction control is engaged.

When a problem crops up, it occurs somewhere in the wires, connectors, sensors, or control module. The traction control is disabled (along with the ABS, potentially). Sometimes dirt or debris is covering wheel speed sensors. Control slipping tires by easing off the accelerator. You’ll need a qualified mechanic to diagnose the problem.

Other Dashboard Lights

There are other helpful lights on your dashboard that tell you what’s going on with your vehicle, but they do not serve as warnings indicating major safety or other issues. These include:

1. Directional Arrow Near Fuel Gauge

What it looks like: An arrow pointing to one side of the car, usually next to the fuel gauge/pump icon.

What it means: This arrow indicates which side of the car your fuel tank is on so you don’t have to guess where it’s located when you pull up to the pump.

2. Cruise Control Light

What it looks like: An icon of a speed gauge, with an arrow pointing to it. The light can be two different colours depending on the state of the system; orange when the system is on but a speed has not been selected, and green once you’ve chosen a speed.

What it means: It’s safe to drive with cruise control on if it’s functioning correctly. If there’s a problem, the light will stay orange and the cruise control will be disabled. Sometimes, a cruise control problem can cause issues in other systems, so have a qualified mechanic look into it.

Note: Adaptive cruise control helps keep drivers safe in many situations, but the key is knowing how to use it and other automotive technologies safely. You also need to be aware of its limitations. More on that here.

3. Daytime Running Lights

What it looks like:  The letters “DLR” appear in orange.

What it means: Daytime Running Lights (DRLs) make your vehicle more visible to other drivers during daylight hours, improving safety and reducing glare. If the indicator light appears, it means your lights are on and operating properly. If your headlights are turned off, the DRL should switch off.

While the warning lights in the list above appear if there’s a problem, the reverse is true here; you will not see the DRL indicator light if there’s a problem with the system.

What you will see if there’s a problem:

  • The DRL indicator is off on your dashboard
  • The indicator is on, but your lights aren’t functioning as they should
  • When you turn your vehicle off, the DRL indicator doesn’t switch off

There could be a problem with your headlights or DRL lamp module. Make an appointment with a qualified mechanic.

4. High Beams

What it looks like: A blue symbol, with four straight lines and D-shape.

What it means: This is one of few indicators that appear in blue, and it means your high beam headlights are turned on. It’s also important to maintain your headlights. If you notice one or both lights are burnt out or cracked, that dirt or debris are preventing them from operating correctly, or other problems occur, book an appointment with a qualified mechanic.

If you see any of the lights above pop up on your dashboard, don’t panic! You now know what they mean and how to respond. Knowledge is one of the best tools you can carry with you, so read your vehicle’s owner’s manual and know your vehicle inside and out. Always travel with a fully charged cell phone, a car emergency kit, tire pressure gauge, and most importantly your CAA Membership Card. You can call us 24 hours, 7 days a week for assistance.

 

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