Just because you’re not a mechanic doesn’t mean you need to be totally in the dark when it comes to decoding what your dashboard lights mean. 

Typically, your car’s dashboard lights will illuminate the first few moments after you start your ignition. Don’t worry! If nothing is wrong, those lights will go out after a few seconds. However, if one or more remain lit, there could be trouble with your car that needs to get addressed. When that happens, it can be hard to understand what the actual issue is. According to a recent study, nearly half of driver ignore their dashboard lights. This is the exact opposite of what you want to do. Figuring out what your dashboard lights mean now can help you save time and money down the road.

While some lights are pretty straight forward, others can leave you scratching your head. Owners manuals are helpful, but in a pinch it can be tedious to flick through pages and pages to find out what your dashboard lights mean. Here’s our guide to interpreting what your dashboard lights mean.

Color Matters

When it comes to your dashboard, not all colors are created equal. The color that an indicator shows is just as important as what that indicator is signally. 

Think of it similar to a traffic signal. 

Red means stop. Red indicator lights mean that your car requires immediate attention. This usually implies a complete failure (or impending failure) that could compromise your car and safety. 

Yellow means that service is required and you need to pay attention. Even though it’s not as serious as red, don’t take this as a free pass to drive around for as long as you want. The longer you go ignoring a little issues, the larger chance there is for that little issue to become a huge problem.

Interpreting What Your Dashboard Lights Mean

what your dashboard lights mean

There are quite a few different indicators that can light up when an issue arises. Here’s a quick look at what those lights are telling you.


ABS stands for anti-lock braking system. Most newer cars have an anti-lock braking system that keep brakes from locking-up by monitoring and modulating brake pressure when a vehicle is about to come to a stop. If your ABS light comes on it could indicate anything from an issue with the sensor to an inability to stop on wet or icy roads. 


Check engine lights usually appear as an illuminated outline of an engine. Even if your engine itself is operating normally, a check engine indicator can let you now about an issue with the your car’s fuel injection, ignition, or EMS (emission control system). 


An illuminated brake light can mean that your emergency brake is engaged. It can also mean that your car is low on brake fluid. Both of these are easy fixes that might not even require a mechanic. If your e-brake is released and you know your fluid levels are topped off, get to a mechanic right away. This could point to a deeper issue with your braking system. If you are having issues braking, pull over immediately and call for assistance. 


If your oil light is on, pull over and call for roadside assistance. Usually this means your oil pressure is low, and driving with low oil pressure can lead to engine damage. 


Depending on your model you car may say either ALT or GEN, or may have an outline of a car battery. In all cases, this points to a problem with your car’s charging system. When this light comes on its best to turn off all accessories and head straight for your nearest repair shop. If the indicator is red, pull over and call for assistance instead. 


Also shown by an outline of a thermometer, your temp indicator tells you when your car is overheating. When this happens, turn off any A/C unit and blast your heater instead. It’s a good idea to keep coolant with you at all times. If you have any on-hand, pull over and fill the reservoir with a 50/50 water-coolant solution. Make sure to get your car serviced right away when this happens. 


Your tire pressure light indicates that one or more of your tires are popped or under-inflated. 

Something to Remember

Sometimes sensors can go out. In these cases, lights will turn on for no reason or stay on even after servicing is complete. No matter what, it’s always a good idea to er on the side of caution and have your car serviced. If you have any lights on your dash on or need more help interpreting what your dashboard lights mean, let our team at Beetlesmith Valley Auto in Renton service your car. Contact us today to schedule an appointment. 

Contact Us
close slider
  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.