Car dashboard symbols and meanings

Modern vehicle dashboards are far more complex than they once were, showing multiple dashboard lights (icons) that are connected to your car’s electronic control unit (ECU).

Engine warning lights and other warning symbols are there to flag up a part of your car that may need basic vehicle maintenance (such as your tyres pumping up) or urgent mechanical attention (such as your brakes pads being replaced).

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For those of you who think ‘life’s too short’ to read a car owner’s manual and the only time you look at one is when a dash symbol is lit up, or for a car service stamp, here’s everything you need to know about car dashboard symbols and meanings

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What do the different car warning light colours mean?
Car engine light car dashboard symbols and meanings
Brake warning light
Engine warning light
Airbag warning light
Tyre pressure warning light
Powered steering warning light
Diesel Particulate Filter (DPF) warning light
Oil warning light
Temperature warning light
Coolant warning light
Battery warning light
Brake pad warning light
Electronic stability problem (ESP) warning light
Anti-lock brake system (ABS) warning light

What do the different car warning light colours mean?

Similar to traffic light sequences, your car warning lights will light up in different colours to indicate how serious a problem may be and will either be:

  • Green: to indicate something is in good working order or is being used
  • Amber: to warn that something isn’t quite right and needs to be checked asap
  • Red: to flag up a possible serious issue that needs urgent attention and you should stop driving (or not drive) your car until you are aware of what the issue is and whether or not you require urgent mechanical assistance

Car engine light car dashboard symbols and meanings

Brake warning light

brake-warning

What does it mean?

A circled red exclamation mark on dashboard is a brake system warning light.

It will light up when your parking brake is on or can be a brake fluid symbol to highlight your brake fluid level is low and needs topping up.

If this icon lights up after you have taken the parking brake off, or flickers or comes on while you’re driving, it usually means that your brake fluid levels are low.

Some people feel confident enough to check their own brake fluid levels and, if necessary, top this up themselves. However, if you’re not sure it’s best you seek professional help from a mechanic.

To prevent low brake fluid levels, when you next take your car for a service, you should ask for your brake system and brake fluid levels to be checked as not all garages or mechanics will do so.

Note: If your ABS warning light is on in addition to your brake warning light, this is more serious and indicates your braking system is not working as well as it should. If you have one on your dashboard, an additional ‘EDB’ (brake force distribution) light may also light up. You should seek urgent mechanical assistance if any of these lights come on.

Is it safe to drive?

Not really; you would be taking a risk if you do.

Obviously were your brakes to completely fail it’s highly likely you’ll end up in a serious car accident.

If a light comes on while you’re driving, you should safely pull over, gently using your brakes to stop.

If you have breakdown cover, it’s best you contact your provider and get roadside assistance rather than risk driving your car down the road.

If you’re near a local garage, you should contact them to see if they can either come out to check your brake fluid levels and brake pads, etc, or ask if they are able to transport your car to their garage for checking. This is usually costly though so having breakdown cover for this scenario can be a godsend.

Read more: Breakdown cover guide

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Engine warning light

engine warning

What does it mean?

An amber engine warning light is illuminated when, you guessed it, there’s an issue with your car’s engine.

Very often, you’ll already know that your vehicle isn’t driving as it should do - perhaps you’ve noticed a loss of power or your car juddering as you accelerate.

This particular light has a lot of meanings: some can be quite minor and others, quite serious such as a mechanical failure in your emission control system (ECS).

Is it safe to drive?

Continuing to drive with the engine light on could potentially cause irreparable engine damage and if it’s red, you should stop your car immediately and call for assistance. If it’s amber, you should drive to the nearest garage for checking.

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Airbag warning light

airbag-warning

What does it mean?

The airbag warning light is also known as the supplemental restraint system (SRS) symbol.

A red SRS light means that a part of the airbag safety system is malfunctioning.

In addition to the airbag system, it could mean the front passenger occupant classification system is faulty - this system recognises the front passenger’s position and weight to ensure an airbag is deployed safely.

It can also mean the seat belt pretensioner system might not cause the seat belt to tighten adequately should you brake sharply.

Is it safe to drive?

Only if you drive cautiously and slowly straight to a mechanic for assessment.

This light could mean your airbag won’t deploy in the event of an accident or could cause you to have an accident by deploying unexpectedly for no reason. So it’s best to get this checked out asap.

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Tyre pressure warning light

tyre-pressure-warning

What does it mean?

Many high spec or modern cars have a tyre pressure monitoring system and a pressure symbol to notify you when your tyre pressure is failing. Some ECUs even tell you how much pressure each or your tyres have in them.

If you notice one or more of your tyres keeps losing pressure rapidly, you’ve probably got a slow puncture. However, this warning light could come on just because your tyre pressure had dropped over time.

Is it safe to drive?

Yes, but you shouldn’t drive too fast or brake too suddenly and make sure you prioritise putting air in your tyre/s asap.

Most fuel stations have an air compressor you can use to check your tyre pressure and top your tyres up.

You should check your owner's manual for the recommended vehicle manufacturer tyre pressure specifications.

If you suspect you have a puncture, you should either call for roadside assistance (if this is included in your breakdown cover) or, if you feel confident enough, attempt to change the tyre yourself.

If it’s a slow puncture, top the pressure up to its highest recommended level and drive straight to a tyre garage to get your tyre repaired or replaced.

You might like: Multi-car and family breakdown cover

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Powered steering warning light

powered steering warning

What does it mean?

A red steering wheel icon relates to your car’s powered steering and is also known as an electric power steering system (EPS or EPAS) warning light.

When this warning light is illuminated, it’s telling you there’s an issue with the power steering.

Sometimes you can clear this warning light by simply turning your car off and waiting about 30 seconds before turning your car back on again. This effectively “reboots” the system just like you do with a malfunctioning PC.

If rebooting doesn’t clear it and the light stays on, you should take your car to a garage to be checked.

Is it safe to drive?

Yes, but the steering wheel could be stiffer than usual so take it easy, avoid motorways and get it checked relatively soon.

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Diesel Particulate Filter (DPF) warning light

dpf exhaust warning

What does it mean?

If you drive a diesel vehicle and one of the above amber lights come on, it means the exhaust diesel particulate filter (DPF) isn’t performing as it should do and probably needs a clean.

A DPF removes toxic soot particles from diesel exhaust emissions.

Is it safe to drive?

Although it’s fairly safe to drive, it isn’t environmentally friendly and could damage your vehicle. Also, a blocked DPF could cause your car to go into ‘limp mode’ meaning you will all of sudden lose power when trying to accelerate. So it’s best to avoid motorways or any long distance driving until you have your DPF checked by a professional mechanic.

Note: As long as your car isn’t going into ‘limp mode’, you can try putting DPF filter cleaning fluid into your diesel tank and/or taking your car for a good run on a motorway (travelling at the same speed for a certain amount of minutes). This can help your DPF regenerate but this isn’t always possible and a filter may occasionally need a thorough, professional clean or replacement.

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Oil warning light

oil warning

What does it mean?

A red oil warning light can mean your vehicle is low on engine oil, has low oil pressure or the oil temperature is too high.

This could mean your engine is not receiving sufficient lubrication to successfully work and could lead to costly or irreparable engine damage.

Is it safe to drive?

Not really. As soon as you notice this light is illuminated you should safely stop your vehicle as soon as possible and carry out a thorough inspection of your car for any oil leaks and to check your oil levels.

If you can’t find any leaks and the oil levels are as they should be then it could be a problem with your oil pump or pressure switch.

Either way, it’s not advisable to continue driving your car if this light remains on after topping up your oil. If you have it, you should use your breakdown cover for roadside assistance. If you don’t have roadside assistance cover, you should drive to the nearest garage for an urgent inspection.

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Temperature warning light

engine temp warning

What does it mean?

The red temperature warning light is also known as the coolant temperature warning light and when illuminated can mean the engine is overheating as a result of low coolant levels. This can be due to a leak or something more significant like a head gasket malfunction.

Is it safe to drive?

Not immediately, no. As soon as this light comes on you should safely stop your car and switch off its engine and wait for the engine to cool down.

Then take a look under the car’s bonnet to check what the coolant tank levels are and, if possible and you have some coolant in the car, top the coolant tank up.

If you have no coolant to hand but have breakdown cover, call for recovery or roadside assistance as an overheated engine could cut out and cause irreparable damage.

You might like: What to do if your car breaks down in the UK

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Coolant warning light

coolant warning

What does it mean?

If an amber coolant warning light comes on, it means you need to top up your coolant levels.

You should purchase coolant from the nearest fuel station, garage or auto car parts shop and once your engine has cooled, top up the coolant to the required level.

Is it safe to drive?

Yes, but you should avoid any long drives and top up the coolant asap - but only once the engine has cooled down. If you continue to ignore this light you could damage your car’s engine.

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Battery warning light

battery charge warning

What does it mean?

If a red battery charging system light (or battery charge light) appears on your dashboard then it means your battery isn’t charging as it should.

Problems that can cause this light to come on include a malfunction in the car’s electrical system (e.g. connections or cables), a faulty battery or a faulty alternator.

Is it safe to drive?

Yes, but only if you have some jump leads and a kindly person who will lend their car power to jump start your car!

If not, it’s advisable to drive to the nearest garage or auto shop to get your battery checked out and fixed or replaced.

If you have breakdown cover, you should be able to get a jump start wherever you are.

You might like to read: Preparing your car for winter - a guide

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Brake pad warning light

brake pad warning

What does it mean?

A brake pad wear warning light indicates your brake pads are too worn (thin) and need replacing.

Is it safe to drive?

Yes, usually, as this light tends to come up before your brake pads are paper thin. However, you should of course get your car booked in for replacement brake pads asap.

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Electronic stability problem (ESP) warning light

esp stability warning

What does it mean?

An electronic stability problem (also known as electronic stability control - ESC) light means there’s an issue with your traction control.

A flashing light indicates the ESP system has kicked in perhaps due to slippery road conditions but if the light stays on, this means the ESP system is faulty.

Check your ESP system is turned on by pressing the ESP button in your car - the icon will light up with ‘off’ if it's not switched on.

To check your ESP system is functioning as it should do, you should try stopping and restarting the engine and if the light remains on, get it checked by a mechanic.

Is it safe to drive?

Yes, but do so cautiously in wet, muddy and slippery road conditions until you are sure your traction control is in full working order.

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Anti-lock brake system (ABS) warning light

abs brake locking warning

What does it mean?

A lit amber ABS light relates to a vehicle’s braking safety feature called an ‘anti lock brake system’.

Anti lock technology allows you to make a safer emergency or sudden stop, and more safely navigate treacherous road conditions.

Is it safe to drive?

Yes, but be mindful you haven’t got this safety feature active should you need to rely on it. So it’s best to drive with caution and get this checked out by an auto repair garage as soon as you can.

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