What do different dashboard lights mean?

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4 min read

Just when you think you know how your car works, an unfamiliar light starts flashing on the dashboard. And the more you drive without checking your car, a few more lights appear. Suddenly, it feels like you're in a cockpit instead of your 2003 sedan and you’re wondering “should I fix or sell my car”?

These lights are your car’s way of saying: hey, something’s up. Some are urgent, some are more of a friendly heads up. If you’re fighting a losing battle with your dashboard lights, it might be a sign that it’s time to cash in your old car for a new one. But whatever the underlying issue is, it’s important to know what to do when you see them.

Let’s take a moment to translate your dashboard maintenance lights into plain ol’ English.

check engine

This can be a minor annoyance (or a major one). The check engine light or CEL means there’s an issue with the engine, but you don’t need to panic (unless it’s flashing, in which case it is urgent). Take your car to a repair shop and ask the engineer to run a diagnostic test to find out the source of the problem.


Time to check your battery. Even if it seems to be running fine, there could be a fault or damage that requires attention.

coolant temperature

If your car is running hot it could point to a problem with the radiator. You should not drive an overheated car—doing so runs the risk of serious damage.

transmission temperature

This points to your gearbox. If the temperature is going up, it could mean wear and tear, too much strain, or the fluid levels are low.

oil pressure warning

With any luck, this just means your engine oil is low. You can check this quickly with the dipstick and top it up if so. If that doesn’t solve the problem (and the light is still up) it could be a leak or something more serious. Get it checked.

tire pressure monitoring system

Yep, you guessed it! Time to check your tire pressure.

brake system

This could just be a heads up to say that you’re trying to pull out with the parking brake still engaged. Or there’s an issue with the brake pads or fluid levels that require attention.

traction control, stability control

Usually, this should mean your car is engaging the systems that help keep your car from slipping. If the light is up but conditions are clear and you are driving slowly then there may be a fault with the sensors that require a check up.

airbag warning

There may be a problem with the airbags, which could be a risk if you have an accident. Get it checked right away.

lamp out

If one of your lights has blown the lamp-out light will flash up. To avoid getting a ticket (or crashing) get your light fixed asap.

washer fluid

…needs a top up!

door open

One of your doors—or the trunk—hasn’t been closed properly.

low fuel

This one’s easy—time to stop by a gas station.

So many lights! And so many potential problems! With any luck the flashes on your dash won’t be serious but if the faults are piling up (along with the repair bill) then it may be lights out for your old motor. Sell your junk ride to Peddle. We’ll buy any old car and light up your bank balance with some easy moolah.