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Auto Expert: Dashboard Warning Lights

By AMA Staff

When a dashboard warning light pops up, it can unsettle even the most seasoned driver. Modern instrument panels can display upward of 60 icons, which vary by vehicle and can resemble everything from a winking robot (battery/charging trouble) to Aladdin’s lamp (low oil pressure). AMA’s Randy Loyk—a manager in Automotive Services with four decades of industry experience—illuminates the subject with a rundown of common warnings and their meanings.

dashboard warning lights tire pressure monitoring system tpmsTIRE PRESSURE MONITORING SYSTEM
This light typically signals low air pressure in one or more of your tires. In addition to checking/adjusting the pressures, inspect the tires for punctures, treadwear, sidewall bulges and other signs of damage that may require tire repair or replacement. When filling the tires, it’s important to be gentle with the valve stems, as they’re easily broken.

dashboard warning lights battery chargeCHARGING SYSTEM
This light usually indicates a bad alternator or an electrical wiring problem, sometimes accompanied by a defective battery. Your nearest Approved Auto Repair Service facility can perform a thorough charging, starting and battery test to isolate the problem.

dashboard warning lights brakesBRAKES
Depending on the vehicle, this light may indicate that the parking brake is on, brake fluid level is low, or there’s a problem in the brake hydraulic system. In most cases, a thorough brake system inspection is advisable.

dashboard warning lights coolant temperatureCOOLANT TEMPERATURE
Modern engines are highly susceptible to engine damage from overheating – damage that may not be immediately apparent. Ask your AARS mechanic for a cooling system pressure test, as well as an operational test of the mechanical and electric cooling fans.

dashboard warning lights oil pressureOIL PRESSURE
This light usually means bad news. An engine that’s been run for almost any time with the oil pressure warning light on has likely suffered significant internal damage and possibly complete destruction. You should shut your vehicle off immediately if this light comes on and have the vehicle towed to your local AARS facility.

dashboard warning lights attention assistATTENTION ASSIST
Some vehicles can recognize signs of drowsiness or inattention and signal concern to the driver with a warning light. Mercedes, for example, responds to lapses in attention by displaying the image of a coffee cup.

dashboard warning lights check engineCHECK ENGINE
This light has more interpretations than the Bible. It could mean something minor, such as a loose gas cap (a common issue); it could mean something major that requires an urgent fix; or it could mean nothing at all (an unanticipated driving condition, like ascending a long, steep hill, could trigger the warning light). To be safe, it’s best to get a proper diagnosis from a AARS facility or your preferred mechanic.

dashboard warning lights traction controlTRACTION CONTROL
Illuminates when the vehicle’s electronic stability system is in use. Typically indicates slippery conditions.