What do your car dashboard symbols mean?

On the Road 3 min read

Every car has a series of different lights on its dashboard. Sometimes, deciphering the meaning of these symbols can feel impossible. Many of the icons are indicators for various systems in your vehicle, and some — like the check engine light or the battery light — can indicate that it’s time for car maintenance.

What does the orange exclamation mark on a dashboard mean?

You might notice the orange exclamation mark on your dashboard. It’s a common symbol often surrounded by a tire or flat tire icon. If you see this symbol, pay attention. It’s typically an alert that one of your tires has dropped below 75% of its recommended pressure. It’s an easy fix: You need to inflate the tire.

You may see a yellow exclamation mark on a dashboard instead, which also indicates an issue with your tires. Some cars have an orange exclamation mark, while others have a yellow one. Your dashboard will display a tire alert through some form of exclamation mark warning light due to their urgency. Low tire pressure reduces your control of the vehicle and makes it more dangerous to drive. Learn more about recommended tire pressure.

While a yellow or orange exclamation point indicates a tire issue, a red exclamation point indicates an issue with the braking system. This might mean your brake fluid is low, possibly due to a leak in the system or because your brake pads are worn. In either case, have a professional inspect the brakes to see what’s causing the light to come on. Learn more about how to tell when you need new brakes.

Is it safe to drive with an exclamation mark on your dashboard?

In general, you should avoid driving your car if you see an icon with an exclamation mark. Depending on the color and shape of the symbol, you could risk doing permanent damage to your vehicle or injury to yourself if you continue to drive. You may want to contact a repair shop as soon as possible to get advice and make a plan to get your vehicle examined.

Most common car dashboard symbols

Aside from the tire pressure light, know these common icons :

Oil pressure warning light

The oil pressure warning light usually looks like an oil can. Pull over, preferably at the nearest gas station, if you see this light. It means you’re losing oil pressure, which can result from a leak in your vehicle. It can also mean your car is low on oil. Driving with little to no oil can cause severe damage to your car. Learn about the importance of oil changes.

Engine temperature warning light

The engine temperature warning light looks a bit like a thermometer and activates when your engine gets too hot. A mechanic should examine your vehicle if this light comes on, but a coolant leak can often cause it. You can check your coolant levels yourself, but if the light has activated, make sure you give your car enough time to cool down to avoid getting burned.

Battery and brake warning lights

An icon that resembles a battery is your voltage warning. It usually indicates a problem with your car’s battery life but can also point to problems with the alternator. It means your car isn’t charging or recharging as it should. Learn more about what to do if your car won’t start.

Finally, if you see an exclamation mark inside a set of parentheses (or a similar symbol), it indicates a problem with your brakes. If you feel no difference when you hit the brakes or it only happens intermittently, drive the car to a mechanic. However, if the symbol comes on and remains on, you should have the vehicle towed to a mechanic. It can mean your brakes are on the verge of failing.

How do I learn what my car dashboard symbols mean?

If you tried to count every variant of a dashboard symbol, you would end up with more than 400 different icons. There’s no need to memorize all of them. If you see an icon appear on your dashboard, you can find the meaning in your car’s owner manual.

According to Patrick McCann of WeTryTires, “All the symbols from your car dashboard will be outlined in your vehicle handbook. A few symbols will be exclusive to certain vehicles or will be easy to confuse. Reading the handbook will clear this up and teach you all the signs that [apply] to your vehicle.”

If you’ve lost your handbook or bought a used vehicle that doesn’t have one, don’t worry. According to McCann, “If you’ve misplaced your handbook, you should be able to find your vehicle online with a quick search for your specific vehicle.” It’s important to note your vehicle’s exact year, make, and model in your search. Sometimes symbols change between years.

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