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Instrument panel lights: what do they mean?

We’ve all experienced it. You’re driving down the road when you notice a new light on the dashboard that wasn’t there a minute ago.

It has caught your attention, but one problem remains: you don’t know what the glowing icon means.

How to identify dashboard warning lights

The modern car is an incredibly complex machine – relying on dozens of systems that must work together every time you get behind the wheel. When one of these systems encounters a problem, your car’s internal computer is programmed to notify you with a corresponding error message.

Generally the colors of these lights can help you identify the severity of the problem. Green or blue lights often let you know a system is active—like your car̵

7;s headlights or a high-tech safety feature. Orange and yellow lights indicate a more significant problem, indicating that your car may need service or repair soon. And red lights often draw attention to the most urgent errors.

When a light on the dashboard lights up, you can always find the meaning of the symbol in your car’s owner’s manual. But to save you some time, here are 12 of the most important dashboard lights you should familiarize yourself with.

Oil pressure

What it resembles: A picture of an old fashioned oil can.

What it means: This light comes on when your car detects low engine oil pressure. This low oil pressure can be caused by several factors. The best case scenario is that your engine is low on oil, so start by pulling over and checking your car’s dipstick – if you have one. Many newer cars no longer come with dipsticks and instead have an internal “check oil” program. This usually involves parking your car on level ground while the program checks your engine’s oil level. If your oil level is ok, something more serious is wrong – like an oil leak or broken oil pump.

When the oil light is on, you can assume that the internal parts of your car’s engine are not properly lubricated. So avoid driving with this light on. Doing so can result in significant engine damage and large repair costs.

Tire pressure

What it resembles: This symbol was designed to look like the cross-section of a tire, which looks like an exclamation point between two brackets – (!).

What it means: The tire pressure light is triggered by your car’s tire pressure monitoring system (TPMS) to let you know that a tire is low on air. Newer vehicles can tell you the exact pressure of each tire, but for older systems, you’ll have to check them the old-fashioned way with a tire pressure gauge. A warning light only goes out when the tire pressure reaches a certain threshold (usually about 25% below the recommended pressure). This means it could mean a flat tire or low tire pressure caused by cold weather. When you see this light, inflate your tires as soon as possible.

Coolant temperature

What it resembles: A thermometer dipped in water.

What it means: This warning light comes on if your car’s engine is overheating. When your coolant temperature climbs too high, it often means something is wrong with one of the cooling system components. This may point to a problem with your fan, radiator, thermostat, water pumps, hoses and coolant.

If you see this light, find a safe place to stop. Driving your car when it’s overheated can cause serious – and sometimes permanent – ​​damage to your engine, so it’s best to stop driving as soon as possible. If you need a tow, Emergency Roadside Service coverage1 from Erie Insurance can help get your vehicle to the nearest service station. The service is available 24/7 and can be added to your car insurance for around $5 per vehicle per year.2Contact us today if you want to know more.


What it resembles: An outline of a car with two squiggly tire track lines behind it.

What it means: If this light is solid, it means your car’s traction or stability control is off. On most vehicles, you can press a button to turn this feature off yourself. However, if the light comes on by itself, some part of the system has failed. Visit your local mechanic to get it repaired ASAP.

Check the engine

What it resembles: On most vehicles, this icon will look like the silhouette of a car engine. However, some manufacturers may use the text “CHECK ENGINE” instead.

What it means: A warning light means that something is wrong with a component in your vehicle’s engine or exhaust system. This could mean a major mechanical problem or something as small as a loose gas cap. Modern engines include dozens of sensors designed to detect and help diagnose potential problems. Your warning light means that a fault has been detected, but the specific “fault code” must be retrieved from your car’s computer using a special code reader. To keep your car running smoothly, visit a service center as soon as possible.


What it resembles: An image of a car battery that looks like a box containing the signs “+” and “-“.

What it means: The battery light is a sign that there is a problem with your car’s electrical system. In some cases, this may mean that the battery itself is defective and needs to be replaced. But more often than not, the battery light can signal that your vehicle’s alternator is no longer working – meaning the battery won’t recharge while you’re driving.

If your battery light is on, visit a local mechanic or auto parts store as soon as possible to diagnose your problem. Ignore this light, and it will only be a matter of time until you are stranded.

Low fuel

What it resembles: An outline of a petrol pump.

What it means: When the low fuel light comes on, it’s time to start looking for a gas station. For most vehicles, this means you only have two or three liters of fuel left in the tank. In newer cars, this light may also be accompanied by a countdown of miles remaining until you reach empty.


What it resembles: A side profile of a person sitting in a car, with a large ball (showing the airbag) in front of his head.

What it means: This means that your vehicle has detected a problem with its passenger safety system. An airbag light can mean there is a problem with an airbag or one of the sensors designed to deploy the airbags in the event of a crash. If you see this light on the dashboard, you need the help of a mechanic to diagnose and repair the source of the problem. Be aware that ignoring this light means you may not be protected by your airbag system in the event of an accident.

Washer fluid

What it resembles: A windshield with a stream of water spraying upwards.

What it means: This light means that your washer fluid reservoir is empty. To make sure you can see clearly, top up the washer fluid as soon as possible. You can purchase a quart of fluid at a nearby auto parts store, gas station, grocery store, or home improvement store.

Brake system

What it resembles: A circle with what look like parentheses on either side. Some vehicles may choose the word “BRAKE” instead.

What it means: Something is wrong with your vehicle’s braking system. Depending on the make and model of your vehicle, this could include low brake fluid, worn brake pads, or problems with your parking brake. The braking system is critical to the safety and performance of your vehicle, so do not drive with this light on. Call a tow truck and get your car repaired as soon as possible.

Anti-lock braking system (ABS).

What it resembles: An icon similar to the braking system, but with the letters ABS embedded.

What it means: Your car’s ABS light means something is wrong with the vehicle’s anti-lock braking system – which is designed to prevent your wheels from locking up during a hard stop. Usually this light means you need to replace an ABS sensor. Even if your car’s brakes still work without ABS, you should have your vehicle repaired as soon as possible to restore this important safety feature.


What it resembles: A gear icon with an exclamation mark or thermometer in the middle.

What it means: When this light appears on the dashboard, it signals a problem with your vehicle’s automatic transmission. The exact cause of this light may vary for each car manufacturer. For that reason, it could mean that your transmission is overheating – or that a sensor has registered a mechanical problem with the transmission itself. Whatever the reason, it’s never a good sign. So get your car inspected by a mechanic as soon as possible.

Also, don’t be surprised if your vehicle goes into “skid” mode when a transmission warning occurs. This setting limits your vehicle’s top speed as a sort of failsafe to prevent you from causing further damage to your transmission.

Get back on the road with ERIE

When you have an unfortunate breakdown with your car, ERIE’s emergency road service can save the day. It’s optional insurance coverage that’s easy to add to your auto insurance and doesn’t cost much. To learn how ERIE can help you get back on the road, contact us today.

ERIE® insurance products and services are provided by one or more of the following insurers: Erie Insurance Exchange, Erie Insurance Company, Erie Insurance Property & Casualty Company, Flagship City Insurance Company and Erie Family Life Insurance Company (home office: Erie, Pennsylvania) or Erie Insurance Company of New York (home office: Rochester, New York). The companies within the Erie Insurance Group are not licensed to do business in all states. See the company’s licensing and business information.

The insurance products and rates, if applicable, described in this blog are effective as of July 2022 and are subject to change at any time.

Insurance products are subject to conditions and exclusions not described in this blog. The policy contains the specific details of coverage, terms, conditions and exclusions.

The insurance products and services described in this blog are not offered in all states. ERIE life insurance and annuity products are not available in New York. ERIE Medicare supplement products are not available in the District of Columbia or New York. ERIE long-term care products are not available in the District of Columbia and New York.

Eligibility will be determined at the time of application based on applicable underwriting guidelines and rules in effect at that time.

Your ERIE agent can offer you practical guidance and answer any questions you may have before you buy.

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