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Here’s What All Those Car Dashboard Symbols Mean

Do you know what all of the different lights on your car's dashboard mean? Or do you just ignore them and hope that your car doesn't break down?

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Car dashboard modern automobile control illuminated panel speed display vector illustration

Car dashboard lights

When a light on your dashboard turns on, it means that something is wrong with your car and you should take it in to get looked at. It doesn’t mean that you should give it a few weeks to see if it turns off. Some lights indicate much bigger problems than others. For example, the brake warning lights is a much more urgent fix than the washer fluid reminder light. The more you know about the dashboard lights, the easier it will be for you to identify the problem and figure out how quickly it needs to be fixed. Test your knowledge below and if a light appears on your dash that you’re not familiar with, make sure to check your car’s owner’s manual. Check out these weird car features you didn’t know you might have.

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brake warning light

Brake warning light

The brake warning light either means that your emergency brake is on or that your car has an issue with the brake system. The brake system involves the brake pads, braking fluid, and the brake lights that display on the back of your vehicle. All of those elements are very important to your safety when driving so if you see this light come on, take it to a mechanic. This is one of the dashboard lights that you don’t want to ignore. Here are some other car problems you’ll regret ignoring.

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automatic shift indicator

Automatic shift lock or engine start indicator

The ASL or engine start indicator light means that your car is locked in neutral or park and that you need to step on the brake to release the lock and shift the vehicle into reverse or drive. If you tend to ignore your car dashboard lights, you should watch out for these signs that your car is about to die.

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airbag symbol

Airbag indicator

You never want to put off getting your car looked at if your airbag light is on. If the light is on (in some cars it will be a light with the letters SRS) it means that something in the system is faulty and your airbags may not deploy during an accident. It could indicate that something is wrong with your seatbelts, the airbag, the computer, or the wiring that controls the airbags. If you want to keep these car dashboard lights from coming on, make sure you never do these 12 things to your car.

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engine warning symbol

Check engine or malfunction indicator light (MIL)

The check engine light is one that gets ignored a lot. Most likely because it can mean that your car just needs a quick fix or that something is seriously wrong with your engine. It turns on when your car’s diagnosis system detects a problem. You don’t need to pull over and turn off your car the second the light comes on, but if you ignore it you could end up making the damage much worse, so take your car in to get looked at as soon as possible. These car hacks will make driving so much better.

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tire pressure symbol

Tire pressure warning light

The tire pressure warning light indicates that your tire pressure is too low. Having low tire pressure can lead to uneven wear of your tires or tire failure.

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washer fluid symbol

Washer fluid reminder

Luckily, when this light comes on you can fix the problem yourself at home. The washer fluid reminder light just means that the washer fluid in your car is low and that you need to refill it. Keeping a bottle of all seasons washer fluid in your garage is always a good idea. Learn about the cars you should (and shouldn’t) buy used. If you have any of the cars that you shouldn’t buy used, you might be used to seeing these dashboard lights illuminated.

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engine temperature symbol

Engine temperature warning light

In many cars, the engine temperature warning light will illuminate blue when the car is first turned on, meaning that the engine hasn’t fully heated up. Then, when the engine has been running for a few minutes, it turns off. It if ever illuminates red it means that your engine is overheating. When the light comes on, pull over and shut off your engine and wait for it to cool down. Even if none of your car dashboard lights are on, these are the things you need to fix on your car before winter.

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automatic gearbox warning symbol

Automatic gearbox warning

Also called the automatic transmission light, the automatic gearbox warning light means that there is a possible problem with your automatic transmission. The most common reason this light comes on is that the car’s transmission fluid temperature is higher than normal. Make sure to avoid these ways you’re wasting money on your car.

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oil pressure symbol

Oil pressure warning light

The oil pressure warning light means that the oil pressure in your car is low and that you need to take your car in to get an oil change. If it comes on, stop driving immediately. Having little or no oil in your car can be very damaging to your engine. Watch out for these ways you’re shortening the life of your car.

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anti lock braking system symbol

Anti-lock brake warning

Your car’s anti-lock braking system works to allow your tires to maintain contact with the road in bad driving conditions such as rain or snow or when you stop your car quickly. It keeps your tires from locking up, causing your car to skid. If the ABS light illuminates while you’re driving it means that the system isn’t working properly and it might not work when you brake. You need to stop believing these common myths about your car.

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charge battery symbol

Battery charge warning light

A car’s battery runs everything electrical—the engine’s control computer, the radio, the headlights, the ignition system, etc. To keep it running, all cars have a built-in recharging system. If the battery charge warning light comes on it means that the system isn’t working at that your battery is going to die soon. Check out these popular car features you’ll probably never see again.

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fog light indicator lights
ET-ARTWORKS/Getty Images

Fog light indicator

This funny looking light simply means that your fog lights are on. If this is one of the dashboard lights that is lit up and you don’t need your fog lights on, make sure to turn them off so you don’t burn out those bulbs.

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ET-ARTWORKS/Getty Images

Recirculated cabin air

This car dashboard symbol means that your vehicle’s ventilation system is recirculating air from within the vehicle. It’s best to use this feature when it’s particularly cold outside and you have the heat on or if you’re running the air conditioning on high.

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traction control symbol

Traction control light

If your car’s traction control light comes on it means that the system is active. You should have it on when driving in slick conditions. Now that you know about all of your car dashboard symbols and meanings, make sure you know the signs that you’re about to fall for a bad car deal.

Morgan Cutolo
Morgan Cutolo is a former senior production editor at Trusted Media Brands. She graduated from the University of New Hampshire in 2016, where she received her Bachelor of Arts in Journalism. In her free time, she likes exploring the seacoast of Maine, where she lives, and snuggling up on the couch with her corgi, Eggo, to watch HGTV or The Office.