Deciphering The Meanings Behind These Auto Warning Lights

There are some people with a mind for mechanics who have no problem discerning the deeper meanings behind these arcane auto warning lights on the dashboard and sometimes even have the solutions on hand. But, for most of us who use our car to get from point A to point B, things can be a little confusing.

Many of our more modern automobiles are equipped with electronic monitoring systems that perform status checks and can alert the operator to what’s happening underneath the hood. This way you have plenty of time to prevent small issues from developing into a catastrophe.

Some of these symbols represent a very serious problem that could leave you stranded and looking for roadside service, at best. Others aren’t as severe, but knowing exactly what each of the auto warning lights on the dashboard mean and how to properly respond is crucial to safe driving and preserving the longevity of your car.

It is important to note that different brands of cars may have a variation or two and even include some symbols that we haven’t covered here. For this reason it is essential for new drivers to study their user’s manual well to understand the auto warning lights in their personal car.

If you find yourself behind the wheel of a car and notice an unfamiliar alert on the dashboard, you may not know what to do or if you even have the capacity to deal with the situation yourself. This would be a good time to take your vehicle to be examined and its problems diagnosed by an automotive professional.


Symbol: This symbol looks like a thermometer with some waves of radiating from its side, like if something was getting hot. This symbol is most often red which indicates that it is a semi-serious problem.

Meaning: There could be two reasons for this symbol to flash on. First, the coolant in the radiator may be low, or the temperature of the engine is getting too high and you are in danger of overheating.

What To Do: If this symbol appears you will first want to carefully open the radiator cap and check the level of coolant inside. Remember to allow the car sometime to cool before opening the radiator or you risk a nasty burn. Top off whatever coolant is missing and you should be fine. If you notice that this signal is appearing too frequently, you may have a leak in your radiator or a problematic sensor. Either way you may want to get professional attention.


Symbol: Looks like an exclamation point inside the cutaway of a tire. This indicates there is a problem with the contents of the tire.

Meaning: When this orange light appears, you will know that the air pressure in one or more of your tires is low and needs to be filled to proper levels.

What To Do: You will need to find our which tire do not have the correct tire pressure for your car. If you aren’t sure what this correct level is, you can find out in your readers manual or on the body of the car concealed by the driver’s door. After you fill your tires to the correct level, you will need to reset the signal light. Some cars do this automatically after driving around for 15 minutes. Other cars will have a button that needs to be pressed to reset the tire pressure alert. For more information on this symbol and how to deal with it in your car, consult the owner’s manual.


Symbol: An easy to identify icon of an old-fashioned oil can, complete with the customary drip. Sometimes this alert is yellow and other times it can be serious red.

Meaning: A red oil can symbol indicates low oil pressure, a serious problem. Low oil pressures should not be ignored as continuing to run the car could result in engine failure and costly repair work. If the dashboard light is yellow or orange, this means your oil levels are low and you should probably top that off at the next service station


Symbol: The “yellow submarine” is actually an artist’s interpretation of a car engine.

Meaning: The Engine/Check engine light is indicating a problem with one of the many systems in your engine. The engine is being monitored by a control unit and when one of these systems presents an error it is stored as noted as a code and this alert is activated on your dashboard.

What To Do: To repair this issue, you will need to know what system is having a problem. This can be discovered by using an OBD2 scanner. You can find these available at your nearest Walmart or automotive outlet and the test can be conducted at home. However, you can also have the testing done at a service garage, here they can also apply any solution needed.

5. ANTI LOCK BRAKE WARNING Symbol — “ABS” set in a circle–– what could be simpler?

Meaning: This is an indication that something has occurred in the hydraulics of your Anti-lock Brake System. When you see this light is on, your ABS system is not activated.

What To Do: Without the ABS activated, your driving experience will be very different. The ABS is a sensor system that detects the speed of the wheel when applying the brakes. This ensures that your brake pedal will never lock down the brakes if you have to stop suddenly. Locked down wheels can send your car out of control. Which could be even more dangerous than the perceived hazard. Those that are unfamiliar driving without the ABS could risk traffic safety while driving without the ABS activated and this is a good reason to get your car serviced immediately.


Symbol: A shoe set in the middle of a circle, indicates some footwork needs to be applied.

Meaning: This light is found in cars with an automatic transmission. It means that the transmission is keeping the gears locked to avoid danger while switching to drive or reverse. To turn it off, simply push the foot brake pedal while shifting the car into drive or reverse from “park”. If you notice this light appears while you are driving, or it doesn’t turn off after you have applied the brake and engaged “drive”, don’t worry. This is not a warning symbol, just a notification that the brake should be applied before shifting to drive or neutral.


Symbol: A simple 2-D car battery with positive and negative terminals.

Meaning: When this symbol is illuminated, you know that your battery voltage is low. This light will always turn on when you are starting the car. If you see that this light comes on when you are driving or idling, you can be sure your battery is low and needs to be charged. A faulty alternator could be the problem.

What To Do: When the battery is low, it will need to be charged. But it is equally important to make sure the alternator, which is responsible for passing the charge to the battery is working properly.


Symbol: One of those fuel pumps from the late century.

Meaning: You probably guessed it, your car won’t run for too long without fuel. If you examine this symbol a little more closely, you will see that some icons feature a little arrow or triangle on one side or the other that indicates the side of the car where the gas cap and fuel intake are located. Because that can be a tough one to remember.

What To Do: Make your way to a fuel depot (gas station) as soon as possible. After filling your fuel tank, you should notice the small indicator shuts off. If this doesn’t happen you may have a problem with the sensor. Proper diagnosis is best done by someone with automotive experience.


Symbol: A headlight with some light beams obstructed by a curved line representing fog ahead.

Meaning: This symbol indicates that the fog light in the front and rear of the vehicle are turned on.

What To Do: This is just an indication that these lights are on, nothing to worry about. Fog lights use a longer wavelength to be better seen in fog. If this symbol does not turn off when you shut off your fog lights you probably have a small electronic issues to deal with.

Final Notes On Auto Warning Lights

No one is ever happy to see their dashboard lit up like a Christmas tree while they are making their way through traffic. But, if you know what to expect from each of these symbols, you can plan cool and composed response. Remember that the best way to avoid any problems with your car is to keep it properly serviced, cleaned and well-maintained.