Guide to Dashboard Warning Lights

Modern vehicles are getting more complex, with more electric safety, comfort, and driver assistance systems constantly being introduced.

Extra electrical systems, like reverse parking sensors or lane assist, come with added warning lights for when the system is not working correctly.

However, here we will look at some of the most common dashboard lights you are likely to encounter, common to both older and newer vehicles.

Eight common Dashboard Warning Lights and what they Mean

Remember, as a generic rule, dashboard warning lights are the same as traffic lights.

Green means continue. There is nothing to worry about. These lights are purely for information purposes, such as letting you know your car's fog lamps are turned on or that the car's automatic hand brake is engaged.

Yellow means be cautious. Refer to our owner's handbook for details of the specific light as soon as possible, but you do not need to stop driving immediately.

Red means stop. Pull over as soon as it is safe to do so. Make a note of the dashboard warning light/s illuminated, ideally taking a photograph of the dashboard on your phone, then turn the engine off.

Engine Management Light

As shown here, the most common Engine Management Light looks like an engine block but can also be accompanied or replaced by the words "check engine".

These dashboard warning lights illuminate when the vehicle's electronic control unit (ECU) receives unusual readings from sensors measuring systems affecting how the engine runs. Examples would include sensors measuring airflow to the engine, fuel supply to the engine, pressure in the exhaust systems or exhaust gas balance, to name a few.

If this light is accompanied by a loss of engine power or the light is flashing while driving, you should treat this like a red dashboard warning light and pull over as soon as it is safe to do so.

During an MOT test, if the Engine Management Light stays illuminated after the engine has started, this would be classified as a Major Fault and cause the MOT test to fail.

Oil Warning Light

This light is shown when an issue is detected with the oil that lubricates your car's engine, which, if left unresolved, could cause damage to the engine.

The problem could be that the oil pressure or level is too low or the oil temperature is too high.

As with all red dashboard warning lights, you should stop driving as soon as it is safe. Once the car is pulled over in a safe place, allow at least 10 minutes for the engine oil to settle, then check the oil level and look for any obvious signs of an oil leak underneath the engine.

If the oil level is low, then assuming there are no leaks, topping the engine oil back to the correct level should resolve the issue.
However, if the oil level is correct, the issue is likely a fault with the oil pump or a blockage in the oil filter or feed pipes.

Diesel Particulate Filter Warning Light

This dashboard warning light appears when an issue is detected with the diesel particulate filters (DPF). As the name indicates, diesel particulate filters (DPF) were introduced to diesel vehicles to reduce the small particles that used to leave through the car's tailpipe from doing so.

These filters trap tiny particles while allowing the gases to pass through. However, over time, the particles clog the filter, meaning the vehicle needs to run a cycle known as a DPF regeneration, whereby the particles trapped inside the DPF are burnt away to ash, unblocking the DPF.

The issue is that for these regeneration cycles to occur, the exhaust must get hot enough, which only occurs on longer, non-stop journeys.

As such, unlike most dashboard warning lights, this one needs you to keep driving to allow the car to perform its task and cure its own problem. Generally, to enable the vehicle to perform a DPF regeneration cycle, you should drive continuously at over 40mph for 15-20 minutes. However, you should check your owner's manual for manufacturer-specific instructions.

If, after a long continuous drive at above 40mph, the light stays on, or if a loss of power accompanies the light, the DPF has become too blocked for the vehicle's built-in DPF regeneration cycle to occur.

In this instance, you should book a DPF regeneration at one of our branches, whereby we can connect diagnostic equipment to the car's ECU to engage the DPF regeneration cycle manually

Engine Coolant Warning Light

This dashboard warning light will illuminate when your car's engine is overheating.

The cooling system removes the heat generated from the engine by pumping a coolant solution around the engine and then to the vehicle's radiator, where the heated coolant is cooled by fresh air flowing over the radiator.

This process is not continuous but is controlled by thermostats to maintain the engine's optimal temperature.

Without sufficient cooling, if the engine gets too hot, it can seize, at which point it is being repaired. As such, if the engine coolant warning light illuminates, you should stop driving and pull over as soon as it is safe.

The issue could be as simple as low engine coolant, but it could also be a leak in the heater matrix or radiator or an issue with the water pump or thermostat.

Once stopped, you need to wait at least 30 minutes, ideally longer, for the engine to cool down. Once cooled, you can check the coolant level on the coolant tank under the bonnet to see if the coolant is low. If the level is low, you can top it up and continue your journey. However, you must refer to your owner's manual to ensure you use the correct coolant for your vehicle, and where is it not premixed, the correct ratio of antifreeze and water to make your own coolant solution.

Once your engine coolant warning light has been on, even if topping up your coolant enabled you to continue your journey without it reilluminating, it is always advised to have the system checked by a professional vehicle technician to ensure there isn't a slow leak, which caused the low level.

It is also worth considering a full engine coolant renewal to ensure that the system is free of contaminants and has fresh, clean coolant flowing around the engine.

Battery Warning Light

This dashboard warning light indicates that the battery on your car is not charging.

The problem could be the battery itself or a fault in the electrical charging system, such as a fault with the alternator, wiring or connections.

When this light illuminates, everything will likely still be working; however, with no more charge going into the battery, nothing in the car will work once it becomes fully drained.

It is, therefore, essential to get to a garage while a charge is still left in the battery. You can find your nearest branch here.

Brake Pad Wear Indicator Light

The brake pad wear indicator light will illuminate when your brake pads are worn to the point of needing replacing.

This light illuminates in time for you to get the car booked in for a brake pad replacement at the next earliest convenient time.

If left too long, the brake pads would wear out completely. At this point, further damage is being caused to other components, which will then also need replacing, so while not urgent, you should make your appointment as soon as possible.

Brake System Warning Light

This light illuminates when your handbrake is on. However, if it comes on while you are driving and the handbrake is fully released, there is an issue with the braking system, which may not be operating correctly.

The problem could be low brake fluid, a leak or failure in the hydraulic brake circuit, or an Anti-lock braking system (ABS) malfunction if the ABS light is also illuminated.

Being a red dashboard warning light, you shouldn't continue to drive once it illuminates on your dashboard. Your brakes may feel fine at the time, but if your brake fluid is getting lower, perhaps due to a leak, you may find your brake gradually ceases to work as you continue on your journey.

As such, you should stop driving as soon as it is safe, avoiding heavy braking until you have stopped.

Anti-lock Braking System (ABS) Warning Light

If your Anti-lock braking system (ABS) dashboard warning light illuminates, the ABS could have a problem.

The ABS is a safety feature that prevents your car from sliding in slippery road conditions when braking. It releases and applies the brakes extremely fast to keep the wheel rolling, rather than locking and sliding, and so maintaining steering and control.

If the ABS warning light illuminates on its own, your brakes should continue to work, but without the assistance of the ABS. As such, you should be more careful when driving, leaving a greater braking distance and braking more gently.

You should make your appointment as soon as possible to have your Anti-lock braking system (ABS) fault investigated.

However, if your ABS dashboard warning light illuminates along with your Brake system warning light (shown in the previous sections), your car has likely suffered a significant brake fault.

In this instance, you should slow down and find the next safe place to pull over and stop driving, avoiding heavy braking.

Remember, a light appears on your Dashboard when one of the car's ECUs (Electrical Control Units) registers readings from a sensor outside the expected range.

A diagnostic check will identify the Diagnostic Trouble Code (DTC) that has caused the light on the Dashboard to illuminate. Still, it is more complicated to determine the exact cause.

Take the Diagnostic Trouble Code P0135, for example, which relates to the catalytic converter oxygen sensor and causes the Engine Management Light to illuminate.

The possible causes of this fault could include, but are not restricted to, the following;

  • Defective Oxygen Sensor/Air Fuel Ratio Sensor
  • Defective Oxygen Sensor/Air Fuel Ratio Sensor Heater Circuit
  • Exhaust System Leak
  • Intake Air System leak
  • Low Fuel Pressure
  • Defective Engine Coolant Temperature Sensor
  • Faulty sensor wiring or a broken circuit
  • Powertrain control module (PCM) software requires updating
  • Defective PCM

In all instances, a diagnostic check is the place to start, enabling a trained technician to read the Diagnostic Trouble Code from the vehicle ECUs to begin pinpointing the problem.