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Car dashboard warning lights: a guide

No one wants to see a dreaded warning light flash up on their car dashboard, because it’s often a sign that there’s a mechanical fault – which may be expensive to fix. Here’s the lowdown on what some common warning lights could mean and what you should do if they appear.

No one wants to see a dreaded warning light flash up on their car dashboard, because it’s often a sign that there’s a mechanical fault – which may be expensive to fix. Here’s the lowdown on what some common warning lights could mean and what you should do if they appear.

Written by
Julie Daniels
Motor insurance expert
Last Updated
24 AUGUST 2022
10 min read
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What do the different car warning light colours mean?

Warning lights on your dashboard follow a traffic light colour scheme based on how severe the potential problem could be.

  • Red warning lights indicate problems that need urgent attention. You should stop your car as soon as it’s safe to pull over if a red light appears.
  • Amber warning lights mean that something isn’t working properly. You should get your car checked out promptly in case the problem develops into something more serious.
  • Green warning lights are for information only. They indicate that a feature of your car is switched on, such as parking sensors or electric car charging.

Why is it important to know your car warning lights?

Dashboard warning lights are there to alert you to the fact that something is wrong with your vehicle or needs attention. If one of these lights comes on, it’s important to understand what your car is trying to tell you, as it may be something serious. As much as you’d like to, it’s never a good idea to ignore it. By taking action as soon as possible, you might be able to avoid an inconvenient or dangerous breakdown, or costly repair bill.

Let’s take a closer look at some of the most common red and amber warning lights. We’ll explain the most likely causes, what you should do about the problem and whether you can still drive if they come on.

Brake system warning light

This warning light could be the most worrying – functioning brakes are certainly not optional on a motor vehicle. While it may be something minor like the handbrake not being fully released, it might point to something more serious. It could be that you’re running low on brake fluid or a worn-out brake pad needs replacing.

Is it safe to continue driving with the brake light on?

It’s not worth the risk – faulty brakes can be very dangerous, especially when you need to slow down at motorway speeds or in an emergency situation. If you see this warning light, you should take action straight away, especially if the brakes feel spongy or weak when you press down on the pedal. Pull over as soon as it’s safe and call your breakdown service for assistance.

Engine warning light

Another scary one. If this light comes on, it indicates that a sensor has detected a problem with the engine. It’s often accompanied by other clues that your engine isn’t working properly, such as a lack of power or stuttering as you press the accelerator. It could be down to a small electrical fault or a problem with a sensor, or you could be dealing with a much bigger mechanical issue – such as a complication with your emissions system or catalytic converter.

Is it safe to continue driving with the engine light on?

You can continue to drive to where you need to be, but don’t wait too long to get your car checked out because you risk causing further damage to your engine. Ask a mechanic to take a look. They'll run a diagnostics check to pinpoint where the problem is. It could be very minor, but ignoring it might lead to major consequences.

Coolant warning light

This amber thermometer light tells you that it’s time to top up your coolant levels. Coolant is responsible for keeping the temperature in your engine at a manageable level. Without it, your engine could quickly overheat, which could cause long-term damage if left unchecked.

Is it safe to continue driving with the coolant light on?

While there’s no immediate urgency to stop the car, you should avoid making any long journeys. Top up as soon as you can at the next petrol station. Also, be sure to pull over and wait for the engine to cool down first, as opening a steaming hot coolant reservoir could lead to burns. If this light often flashes up despite repeated top-ups, get your car serviced to ceck for leaks.

Battery warning light 

This light always turns on when you start your engine but should disappear within a few seconds. If it doesn’t, your car’s electrical system may need some attention. This is something you’ll want to get checked out because it could lead to a breakdown. The most likely culprit is a bad connection, which is a quick fix – either clean the battery connections or tighten them. Other causes might include a faulty alternator, a damaged or old battery that needs replacing or damaged cabling.

Oil warning light 

Most people will recognise the oil warning light, but you might not realise just how important it is. The oil in your car keeps moving metallic parts lubricated. Neglecting to refill the oil in your car could cause extensive damage. Plus, the light could be a sign that your oil pressure is too low – a problem that you’ll need to fix as soon as possible.

Is it safe to continue driving with the oil light on?

It’s important to act quickly if this light comes on. Stop and pull over safely, and turn off the engine. Look for signs of a leak under the car and top up your oil if it’s low. If the oil level is okay, it suggests there’s a fault with the oil pump. Call your breakdown service because driving any further could damage the engine.

Tyre pressure light 

Not all cars will have the TPMS (tyre pressure monitoring system) feature. But if yours does, it’ll tell you when the tyre pressure isn’t quite right. Your tyres might just need inflating, but it could also be a sign of a puncture.

Is it safe to continue driving with the tyre pressure light on?

Sometimes low temperatures can cause false alarms with your TPMS, so you shouldn’t immediately panic. You can drive with this light on, but a real tyre pressure problem could affect your handling, so watch your speed and try to avoid braking sharply.

Head to a petrol station air pump (or use a home tyre pressure checker) to check the tyres are at the correct pressure. The ideal pressures can be found in your car manual, or on a plate on the b-pillar (the vertical metal post between the front and rear doors). If there’s a problem, top up with air or get your tyre changed at the next available opportunity.

Power steering warning light

Your power steering warning light may be accompanied with other worrying symptoms, including a stiffer steering wheel. The most common reason for this light to be on is that you’re low on power steering fluid and need a top-up. But it might also be a sign of a more pressing issue that needs investigating.

Is it safe to continue driving with the power steering light on?

We wouldn’t recommend it. If you’ve checked your fluid levels and they’re normal, head to a garage for help. While you can still drive if your power steering fails, you should take extra care. You might find that the car is harder to steer, and it could be dangerous driving at high speeds on the motorway.

Airbag warning light

Airbags are a critical safety feature of your car as they could cushion the impact of a collision. If the airbag light turns red, it means that the airbag safety system isn’t working as it should. This could be down to the airbag system itself, damaged wires or interference with the part of the seat belt that tightens in a crash.

Is it safe to continue driving with the airbag light on?

It’s best to get your car looked at by a mechanic straight away because a faulty airbag system can be extremely dangerous. The airbags may not deploy in an accident, leaving you and your passengers without protection. They could even go off unexpectedly in the middle of a journey and cause you to crash. Due to the way airbags work, once they go off and begin to deflate, they won’t offer you any protection from that crash.

Fuel warning light

As well as the dial edging into the red, many vehicles might also show a warning light when it’s time to refuel. It’s useful to know how many miles you can cover once the light’s on – and this might be in your car’s handbook.

Is it safe to continue driving with the fuel warning light on?

Yes, but for a very limited distance. You should get your vehicle to a filling station. There’s plenty of tales about how far you can go while in the red, but this varies by car and by the way you drive.

A quick tip: if you can never remember which side your fuel cap is on, the manufacturer gives you a hint – look at the fuel pump symbol on your dashboard for a small arrow indicating the side the fuel hose is on.

Seatbelt warning light

If you or your passenger haven’t put your seatbelt on you’ll get a visual warning. Sometimes it’s because someone has forgotten, but it could be that the belt hasn’t clicked in properly, which could be dangerous in an accident.

Is it safe to continue driving with the seat belt light on?

No, if someone isn’t wearing their seatbelt then they’re at risk of serious injury if you were to be in an accident. Stop and make sure everyone’s seatbelt is properly fastened. You could also be fined £500 if you don’t wear a seatbelt when you’re supposed to.

Will my car warranty cover me? 

If your car is still under warranty it’s worth checking what you might be covered for, if you need to get a warning light seen to. This could save you forking out for a large repair bill.

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