How To Understand Your Car's Warning Lights

It’s always concerning when a blissfully grey symbol lights up on the dashboard in front of you, alerting you to a problem under the bonnet. Sometimes, these warning lights are not as self-explanatory as the dealership indicated when they sold you the car. But prevention is always better than cure, and if you see a new light illuminated in green, orange or red, it is there for a reason and you should have the knowledge to uncover its sometimes mysterious meaning.

At Sell Your Damaged Car, we’ve been in the business of helping motorists sell their non-running cars since 2018. As the car owner, you need to understand whether the emergency lights that are flickering before you indicate a major or minor problem and the best way forward (to avoid breaking down).

Robot colours indicate severity

While no-one wants to end up with a non-running car, it’s important to be able to decipher the meaning of each dashboard symbol and its severity in terms of the car’s safety and performance.

Often, the colour of the light displayed gives you an indication of the issue’s seriousness.

  • Red symbols reveal that the car should not be driven further and needs immediate attention. (It’s time to panic!)
  • Yellow or orange lights indicate that action is required, but you can still drive the car within reason (for example, the car might require a service, but it can wait a week). (You have time to make a plan).
  • Green indicates pure informational alerts such as time, speed and temperature. (No need to panic).
Dashboard emergency lights can be the first indicator of a greater problem with the car.

Knowledge of the triage of dashboard warning lights will hopefully mitigate you sitting with the problem of having to sell your non-running car.

Interpreting the symbols

Let’s unpack the (long) list of the most common symbols that may jump out at you while driving:

  • Oil pressure

    Sometimes confused as the symbol of Aladdin's magic lamp, this image reveals low oil pressure or no lubrication. This might be an easy fix that can be attended to at the nearest petrol station. It could, however, indicate a more serious issue with the oil pump or a leak in the system that may need professional attention. (It’s worth checking out as soon as possible).
  • Battery charge

    The image of a battery with positive and negative charges shows short-charging of the vehicle’s battery. Since the battery is a vital component of the car’s functioning, it is a serious issue that should be given the attention it deserves. It could highlight a problem with the battery or alternator.
  • Brake warning light

    The exclamation mark on your dashboard either turns on when the handbrake is engaged or, if the handbrake is not up, it could indicate a leak in the brake system or loss of hydraulic pressure in the braking system. (An exclamation mark ALWAYS demands attention!).
  • Tyre pressure

    Not available on all models, this is a helpful symbol that alerts the driver if one of the tyres has low pressure. You can drive to the nearest service station and have this attended to as soon as possible.
  • Traction control

    Pictured with a car on a winding road, this light illuminates when the traction control system of the car is activated.
  • Service vehicle soon

    Also not a symbol revealed in all vehicles, this warning light could indicate an issue with the car’s chassis system, which includes crucial safety issues in areas such as the anti-lock brake system, electronic suspension system, traction control system or hydraulic brake system. (Plan a service at your dealership or local mechanic when this light comes on).
  • Side airbag

    Pictured as an airbag in front of a passenger, this emergency light reveals a faulty airbag, an issue with the airbag system or a disengaged airbag that requires attention.
  • Master warning light

    Usually indicated by an exclamation mark in a triangle, it is crucial to seek professional assistance when this light illuminates. It is often accompanied by another warning light revealing the detection of one or more problematic systems in the car. (We advise you stop driving and seek immediate attention when you see this light to avoid escalation of the issue).
  • Clogged air filter

    Pictured as a number of dots in two rows with arrows pointing through them, this warning light indicates reduced airflow in the engine or a dirty air filter. Opt to get the air filter inspected or replaced to solve this issue as it can impact the vehicle’s performance and fuel efficiency.
  • Check engine

    Revealed as an image of an engine, this light shows a malfunction with an engine component, which could be a major or minor issue. Rather have the car examined by a professional to avoid further engine damage.
  • Trailer tow hitch warning

    This light indicates issues with the lighting system or unlocking of the tow hitch.
  • ABS

    Symbolised with ABS in a circle, this indicates that the Anti-lock Brake System (ABS) is not functioning correctly and should be checked soon to ensure the vehicle’s safety.
It is important to understand what the various warning light symbols mean.
  • Windscreen washer fluid

    Also not on all cars, this light - illustrated by wipers on a windscreen - means that the windscreen washer fluid needs to be replaced. (This is an easy fix and can be done at your nearest service station).
  • Door indicator

    Symbolised as a car with wings (or open doors), this means that one or more of the car’s doors have not been closed properly.
  • Fuel

    Probably the light that everyone is already all too familiar with, this symbol - which looks like a petrol pump at a service station - turns on when you are low on fuel and need to top up to continue a longer journey.
  • Seat belt

    Pictured as a person with a seatbelt across their body and often accompanied by an audible warning, this light points to the fact that one or more of the passengers (or driver) is not wearing their seatbelt.
Solutions for a non-running car

Not all of these symbols indicate catastrophes that cost exorbitant amounts of cash to be solved. A fuel light, a windscreen washer fluid symbol or a tyre pressure light simply require a quick stop at a service station.

The number of emergency lights on a modern vehicle can be overwhelming to understand.

Other lights may be the first indication of serious repair jobs that may end up costing you more than you bargained for.

In the instance where the cost of repair is too high to warrant forking out the cash, there is a damaged vehicle buyer that wants to help take the non-running car off your hands for a competitive price.

Don’t waste your time and money selling your vehicle privately or to a scrapyard, who will give you pittance for your wheels. Rather opt to sell your non-running vehicle to Sell Your Damaged Car.

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