Modern cars are loaded with sensors and electronics that tell you how it’s behaving. As soon as you start driving, you should familiarise yourself with your car’s dashboard warning lights to prevent a breakdown or a full-on failure.
There are a lot to remember, so we’ve made it super simple to understand. Dashboard warning lights follow a traffic light system:
Red: Indicates a serious and potentially dangerous problem. Stop and pull over immediately.
Amber: Indicates a less serious fault with one of your car’s components. Take extra care and take a look when you stop.
Green: Indicates the system is in use and working as it should.
Now let’s have a look at each light in the colour system, starting with red — the most serious.
Brake warning light
The brake warning light can be a sign of many things relating to your car’s brakes. If it comes on once you’ve released the handbrake, it could be that you haven’t let it off completely. But if it comes on when you’re driving, it can be a sign that your brake fluid level is low or that your brake pad sensor is faulty.
If the Anti-lock Brake System (ABS) warning light comes on as well, it could be a sign that the brake system has malfunctioned. In which case, the Electronic Brake Distribution light will come on too.
But can you still drive with either of these lights on? Short answer, no. Your car’s brakes are one of the most vital safety components, so if you see this light, slow down, pull over and call for roadside assistance.
Airbag warning light
While they may seem like simple parts, airbags are actually quite complex. An airbag warning light can mean several things. Either there’s a problem with the actual airbag system, or the front passenger system or seat belt pretensioner systems are faulty.
Can you still drive with the airbag warning light on? Simply put, no. Not only could it stop the airbag from going off, but it could cause it to go off unexpectedly - causing an accident. Either way, it’s unsafe, so you should get it looked at right away.
Power steering warning light
The power steering warning light, aka EPS or EPAS, indicates a problem with your car’s power steering. This could mean several things. If your car has an electric-powered system, it could be that it just needs rebooting. To do so, find a place to stop, turn your car off, wait 30 seconds and turn it back on. If the light stays on, it could be a more serious problem, and you should head to your local First Stop garage.
But can you drive with the power steering light on? Short answer, yes. But, you’ll find it a lot harder to manoeuvre your car, so we only recommend that you drive it to the garage.
Engine temperature warning light
The engine temperature warning light, also known as the coolant warning light, is a sign that the engine is overheating. While it’s typically a sign that coolant levels are running low due to a leak, it can also be a sign of a head gasket failure.
You should stop immediately if this light comes on, as low coolant levels can cause irreparable damage to the engine. Checking your coolant levels is easy. You can do this by lifting the bonnet and looking at the gauge on the side of the coolant tank. While you’re under the bonnet, look for any signs of a leak too.
If the light goes off once you’ve topped up the fluid, you can drive your car as normal. If it stays on, however, you should get it looked at right away.
Engine oil warning light
If the engine oil gets too hot or the pressure too low, expect to see the engine oil warning light flash up on your dashboard. In which case, you should stop driving immediately to avoid lasting damage to your car’s engine.
Once you’ve pulled over, look for obvious leaks. Then, check your oil level and top it up if needed. If the oil level is fine, it could be a faulty oil pump and job for a roadside assistance mechanic.
Battery charge warning light
This light tells you that the battery isn’t charging. Several things can cause this, like a problem with the alternator, battery, electrical connection or a cable fault. If this light comes on, your car will run until the battery drains. To avoid breaking down, get your car to a garage right away.
Engine management warning light
It’s not uncommon for your car to feel normal to drive if this light pops up on your dashboard. But that doesn’t mean you should ignore it. The engine management, also known as the ECU light, indicates a fault with your car’s engine.
While it’s often a faulty sensor or minor issue, it could be due to something major. And thus, a proper diagnosis is important. If this light comes on while you’re driving, you should get it looked at as soon as you can. Failing to do so can cause more harm and lead to an expensive repair.
DPF warning light
You’ll see this light if there’s a problem with your exhaust particulate filter. Its job is to remove soot from the exhaust gases to reduce emissions. If it gets blocked, this light will come on to tell you.
Driving with the DPF warning light on isn’t advised. As well as releasing a black plume of smoke every time you press the accelerator, it could cause further damage to your car. You should get it looked at right away if the light comes on, as the filters are expensive to replace.
Low tyre pressure warning light
Most modern cars come with a Tyre Pressure Monitoring System (TPMS) that tells the driver when the tyres drop below the set pressure. It’s common for your tyres to lose pressure over time, but it could also be a sign of a puncture.
Driving your car if this light comes on is fine. But you should top up your tyres when you get a chance. Failing to do so could be dangerous, as it’ll make controlling your car more difficult. Remember, use the manufacturer’s pressure recommendations found in the handbook or inside the petrol cap when topping up.
Anti-lock brake system (ABS) warning light
The Anti-lock Brake System engages when you need to come to a sudden stop or when it’s particularly wet.
If the light comes on alone, you can continue your journey as you’ll still have normal, unassisted brakes. Just keep your distance and take extra care when driving — especially braking. If the ABS light comes on with the brake warning light, this is more serious and could mean the brake system itself is failing. If this happens, you should stop right away and call roadside assistance.
Electronic Stability Control (ESC) warning light
This is your traction control warning light that will come on if there’s a problem with the system. The only time to take action is if the light stays on, rather than when it flashes, as this means the ESC system is intervening. It’s not uncommon for this to happen if the road is slippery.
You can also turn the ESC off. Here, you’ll see the word ‘OFF’ telling you that the system is off, in which case you might have accidentally done so.
To check, restart the engine. If the light stays on, head to your local First Stop garage as soon as possible.
Brake pad warning light
The brake pad sensor detects when the brake pads are wearing thin and alerts you with this dashboard light. Also known as the brake pad wear warning light, it only comes on when the pads are dangerously close to wearing out. And thus, need replacing right away.
So that’s it! These are the most important warning lights for you to remember. If you’re unsure of anything, head to your local First Stop garage and let one of our professionals take a look. Can’t see the light you need? Check your car’s handbook for more information.