Dashboard warning lights and what they mean

Lots of brightly coloured lights but what are they telling you?

Lots of brightly coloured lights but what are they telling you?

It may be the one thing that every driver dreads, but an illuminated warning light on your vehicle’s instrument panel could save you and your car from expensive damage. This is what the symbols mean and what to do if they appear.

Chris Rutt, service delivery manager for Volkswagen UK says it’s vital drivers pay attention to their car’s warning lights. “They are designed to alert drivers to a fault with their car or van and aren’t as complicated as some drivers may think. A red light indicates the driver should stop the vehicle as soon as is safely possible to investigate further; an amber light is an advisory signal. So while there is no need to stop immediately, the reason for the light should be investigated as soon as is practically possible by a servicing agent.”

brake-system-light Assuming you haven’t left the handbrake on, stop your vehicle when it’s safe and contact the manufacturer or dealer. Any fault with the brakes, brake fluid level or the related driving aids such as anti-lock brakes (ABS) and stability control (ESP) could be dangerous.

engine-cooling-system-light This could indicate that there is insufficient coolant fluid in the radiator, or that some sort of blockage or system malfunction has occurred, causing the temperature to rise. Stop the vehicle when safe and contact the manufacturer or dealer. Do not open the coolant bottle beneath the bonnet when the engine is hot as you may scald yourself.

engine-oil-pressure-light Pull over and check the engine’s oil level. If you are not familiar with the car, read the vehicle handbook for instructions on how to do this. The majority of cars have the good old-fashioned dipstick; some modern motors have electronic equivalents. Low levels of oil will urgently need topping up. Failure to do so could result in serious engine damage.

power-steering-system-light There may be a failure of the power-assisted steering. It is possible to continue your journey, but exercise caution and have the system checked as soon as possible. The steering may feel perfectly alright when you’re travelling at any speed but when you slow down it may feel very heavy and some drivers won’t be able to turn the wheel.

airbag-and-seat-belt-system-light If there is a fault with an airbag, it may not work in an accident or, worse still, could deploy unexpectedly. Equally many cars have seatbelts that use pyrotechnics to pull you into the seat in an accident and these can malfunction. Head for the nearest qualified servicing workshop.

vehicle-charging-sytem-light This probably means the battery is no longer being charged. Switch off all unnecessary electrical items (such as the air conditioning or sound system) and take the car to be checked. If it shows a yellow symbol, it suggests the charge level of the battery is very low, and should be investigated further.

steering-lock-light A yellow symbol for the steering lock may simply be there to remind you that the steering lock system is engaged before you can start the engine. However, if it’s red and you’re driving, there is a malfunction. Ideally, do not switch off the engine (as it could prevent you from restarting the car) and drive to your nearest garage to have it checked.

ignition-switch-light When driving, this can show in amber or red, depending on the severity of the fault with the ignition switch system. Although the car may not be displaying any signs of impending failure you should have it examined further. Modern cars are multiple computers on wheels and their electronic systems are designed to self-diagnose some problems before the driver notices them.

emissions-control-lamp-light This could flash or be permanently switched on. It suggests a fault with the engine or the engine’s associated operating software, known as the ECU. You can sometimes reset it, as you would a computer by switching the car off and back on again. If the light doesn’t extinguish after this, consult your garage.

diesel-particulate-filter-light A diesel particulate filter is fitted to modern diesel engines to trap sooty exhaust emissions. Depending on how the car is used, it may be necessary to take an extended drive to ‘burn off’ these particles, effectively cleaning the filter. Your vehicle’s handbook will explain how to do this.

diesel-engine-management-lamp-light It is not uncommon for a diesel glow plug to wear out. This will cause starting problems with the engine. The symbol will alert the driver to any problems – which can be rectified easily and inexpensively by most garages. Even if only one glow plug has failed, it’s probably best to have them all (one per cylinder) replaced for peace of mind.

tyre-pressure-monitoring-light If your car has tyre pressure monitoring, it will signal only when one tyre falls to a significantly lower pressure than the other three tyres. (If all tyres gradually lose air over an extended period of time, it may not alert the driver.) If you see this symbol, check all tyres’ air pressure as soon as possible. This is no substitute to checking tyre pressures on a regular basis.

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(For vehicles 10 years & under on our closest equivalent UK cover)

17 comments on “Dashboard warning lights and what they mean

  1. Myra Lovett 07/08/2014 6:28 PM

    I run a dual fuel vehicle. Petrol/LPG in a Freelander V6 reg 51. The engine management light is usually on most of the time if I’m doing short journeys. If I’m running the car for several hours the light will go out. I can restart, it comes on momentarily or not, until left until the engine cools down, I’ve repeatedly been told that this is not a problem, only the fact that I’m starting on petrol and it automatically switches over to gas. I’m concerned, because the MoT is this September and if the light is on during the test, I’ve been told it’s an automatic FAIL!. Can you shed any light on this anomaly.

  2. James Foxall 18/08/2014 3:34 PM

    Hi Myra
    Cars can fail the MOT if warning lights are illuminated but these are safety related and to do with the ESP, ABS, SRS and so on. An engine management light on its own shouldn’t be a reason to fail a car. However, if it’s on because your car’s exhaust emissions don’t comply, it will fail the test. That said, it might simply be a sensor or similar being confused by the LPG. Depending on how well you know the garage you’re taking it to, I’d ask their opinion before you put it in for the test.

    • Myra Lovett 18/08/2014 10:59 PM

      So far, the tests that have been done, with the light still on, I’ve not had a fail on the exhaust emissions. The LPG system will need servicing this year, but unfortunately, the nearest garage which does maintain the unit on my car, is way out in the country (one bus an hour). I’m familiar with petrol and diesel engined cars and 2 and 4-stroke bikes, but LPG is a total mystery to me. Will keep you posted as to how things go. At least the question has been mooted and may be of some help to others. Providing the car is run for a while longer or so on petrol and they can run the examination shortly after I get to the centre, it appears to be no problem.

    • Stephanie Beckham 18/05/2016 10:35 AM

      this engine management light is on ALL time in my vauxhall astra – I had it checked 8 times after buying the car and it seems to be a fault with the light as car drives well and nothing could be found wrong in engine or emissions, it is annoying though as it could poss fail its next MOT shucks……

    • Sian Davies 15/06/2016 9:28 PM

      My eml light is on, has passed mot last six years, now been told by friend will fail as new laws say immediate fail if dashboard lights on

      • Stephanie Beckham 18/06/2016 4:48 PM

        I was told by KwikFit only on 4.6.16 that a car will not fail its MOT if engine mamagement light on..

  3. margaret stern 15/04/2015 8:23 AM

    I have this problem as well with my duel fuel jeep, my garage tells me that it the moisture in lpg upsets the sensors but it will not usually fail the mot as it is not a dangerous fault, my garage does a quick diagnostic, reset the system to make sure its nothing else they will then do the mot as usual with all the other associated safety checks. My local lpg mechanic has moved and I now have trouble getting it serviced and parts, don’t understand why there are not many around as it saves me a fortune.

  4. Sally 20/01/2016 10:35 PM

    Is anything more needed than a quick diagnostic to determine there is nothing wrong?

    • Sally 20/01/2016 10:36 PM

      with a steering mechanism, that is.

  5. James denton 24/02/2016 11:32 AM

    Citroen red stop light on but runs

  6. Kelly Stokes 14/03/2016 4:08 AM

    Hi my glow plug light has come on lost a bit of power, am I able to change myself on a vw eso x

    • James Mills 17/03/2016 3:19 PM

      Kelly, it is possible to change a glow plug yourself. However, it’s not typical that the car should lose power. You’ll find a wealth of useful information on You Tube about changing the plug. However, you need to have the correct equipment and some mechanical experience. If, after watching helpful ‘How To’ guides on You Tube, you feel it’s not a task you wish to take on, your local Volkswagen dealer, or any local garage that comes recommended, will be able to take care of the job and confirm that the car is returned to full health. If it isn’t, further inspection may be required to establish the cause of the engine losing power.

  7. Joanne 28/04/2016 10:29 PM

    Hi when I put my full beam on to help me see better at night and this only happened tonight it’s like my lights go out for a second and warning light comes up on the dash but then goes straight away. It looks like a red steering wheel with an exclamation mark next to it. It happened also when I flashed my lights but only when moving when I was stationary and flashed my lights it didn’t happen. Can anyone tell me what it is please and thanks

  8. Rod 24/05/2016 7:50 PM

    Could be a loose connection somewhere

    • Rod 24/05/2016 7:56 PM

      Check all bulb holders may be a faulty bulb

  9. Scarlett Autance 25/01/2018 4:46 AM

    That’s exactly what I am looking for. Thanks for this post. I love your blog and all the ideas you shared about car tips. Keep it up!

  10. Marc Dimmock 04/07/2019 10:37 AM

    my brake system light is orange, what should I do as only brought the car last week

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