Ignoring dashboard signs is risky

The dashboard, and particularly the instrument panel, represents the easiest way a vehicle talks back to its driver, allowing him to stay up to date with the status of the car and provide him with prior notice on potential mechanical problems. Photos by Abubaker Lubowa.

What you need to know:

As cars have become more and more sophisticated, the number of possible faults that can arise has grown significantly, along with the number of different warning lights that might flash up on the dashboard. A light on the dashboard can mean you should stop driving right away, or you may have a little time before you have to take your car to the garage.

You should know what the signs stand for so that you do not get stuck. In this article I will look at the more common dashboard lights and what they mean.

Engine Warning Light
Also known as the Check Engine light or more formally known as the Malfunction Indicator Lamp (MIL) is a signal from the car’s engine computer that something is wrong. This one lights up when the ignition is switched on. It should extinguish as soon as the engine starts. If it is on with the engine running, it indicates a malfunction with the engine management system.

If it flashes when driving, reduce the vehicle speed immediately until the light illuminates constantly as this is a sign of a more serious problem. If it continues to flash, avoid heavy acceleration and high engine speed, stop the vehicle and have it checked immediately at a garage with an OBC (On Board Computer) reader.

Try stopping the vehicle, switching off the engine, wait two minutes, then restarting the engine to reset the engine management system. With this light on, the vehicle is still safe to drive as long as no other faults are apparent with the engine. Many drivers confuse this light to mean the car is due for an oil change or other routine maintenance. It is not the indicator of trouble that the Check Engine light is

The Electrical Fault Light
This looks like a picture of a battery, but might be different with some cars. You will see it come on and go off when you start your engine as part of the car’s self-test, but if this light comes on and stays on, it means the electrical charging system is no longer working properly. Think of it like a mobile phone battery.

If the mobile phone is plugged into the charger, you can use it indefinitely, but when you disconnect it from the charger, there is a limited amount of time before your battery runs out. It is exactly the same in your car, only bigger. Every car has an alternator (the charger) and a battery used to supply power to the electrical system. If the alternator becomes faulty, then it will not be able to do its job. The longer you drive, the more your car will use up the remaining juice in the battery and eventually the engine will die. This almost always requires a new or refurbished alternator.

Brake Warning Light
Most cars nowadays have a brake warning light on the dash. Its purpose is to alert you that something is wrong in the braking system somewhere. The brake warning light does not have a standard meaning as it could be used for multiple purposes. For example, the same light may be used to show that the hand brake is on. The light can also indicate that the brake fluid is low.

ABS Brake Warning Light
The light can also indicate that the brake fluid is low. If you have got an ABS-equipped car, you also have a second light, the ABS light. If it is on when driving, it means that something is amiss in the system. It could be something as simple as dirt in one of the sensors, or something as costly as an entire ABS unit replacement. It is important to note that this light normally comes on when you start the car and then switches off a few seconds later.

If it blinks, throbs, flashes or in any other way draws your attention to itself, then take note. It is not doing that just to please itself. Compared to a steady light, a blinking ABS light normally indicates something more serious. In some cases it could be as bad as “you have no brakes at all.”

Oil warning light Light
Typically this light will come on if your oil pressure is too low. Low oil pressure is serious and if you continue to drive with this light on, eventually your engine will die, literally. Low oil pressure can be caused by a failed oil pump, a blocked oil filter or by low oil levels for example if your engine is burning oil or has a leakage. Either way, you need to get it fixed fast. This as a matter of fact is one light that just cannot wait.

The basic reminder lights consist of a door lock warning, a seat belt light and an airbag light. As the names suggest, they inform you if your door is open, your seat belt is unfastened, or simply let you know the airbag is turned on respectively. The parking brake light is a reminder as well to let you know your parking brake is still engaged. These lights do not require any work to be done to your car.

Of course in newer premium cars, the lights might be a whole lot more elaborate than just a red light on the dash with in-dash screens that pin point the problem and even suggest a solution. Nonetheless, dashboard lights are there to keep you safe and give you feedback about your car. Without them many of us would not know when something was wrong. Often a problem cannot be detected until it is too late and we are sitting stranded on the side of the road.