What do your car dashboard symbols mean?

On the Road 3 min read

Every car has a series of different lights on its dashboard, but deciphering the meaning of these symbols can feel impossible. Many of the lights are just indicators for various systems in your vehicle, but some like the check engine light or the battery light can indicate serious problems with your car that need to be checked out by a mechanic.

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 icon. If you see this symbol, pay attention. It’s 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 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 car tires and maintenance.

Most common car dashboard symbols

Aside from the tire pressure light, there are several other common symbols you should know.

Oil pressure warning light

The oil pressure warning light usually looks like an oil can. Pull over, preferably at the nearest gas station, as soon you can 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.

Engine temperature warning light

Another light to be aware of is the engine temperature warning light. It 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

A symbol that resembles a battery is your voltage warning. It usually indicates a problem with your battery but can also point to problems with the alternator. It means your car is not 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 try and learn all of them. If you see a symbol appear on your dashboard, you can find the answer 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 have 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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