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The meaning of warning lights in your car - When to freak out and when to chill out a bit

Car Owners' Guides

The meaning of warning lights in your car - When to freak out and when to chill out a bit

If a car can speak and tell you what’s wrong and where it hurts, you probably won’t need this guide. But most cars still use symbols and multi-colored lights as signals to indicate failure or irregularities in the car’s system and its various functions.

Paying attention to the car's health is crucial and warning lights are not supposed to be taken lighty. If left unchecked for long enough, it can turn into a real pocket-ripping problem or leave you stranded by the roadside. Practicing good car maintenance habit such as routine check on engine oil, coolant, and tire pressure can help in keeping these warnings at bay.

Usually, warning lights will illuminate briefly upon ignition. But if it stays lit longer or consistently for several days, it’s best to send it in for a professional diagnosis the earliest chance you get.

Yellow/orange or red lights; and blue or green lights – what do they mean?

FYI, different colours of warning lights represent different levels of severity or urgency.

Yellow/orange light means, “Hey, this need servicing soon.” Meanwhile red light means, you guessed it, “Dude, you really need to get this checked out, pronto.” Green and blue lights simply mean a certain car function is turned on or is currently in use.

Too bad most cars can’t actually talk (yet?). Warnings conveyed through these multicolored lights are now conveniently written out for you in a growing number of modern cars equipped with digital instrument clusters.

Warning symbols

While reading a car’s warning symbols can be akin to reading hieroglyphs for some, the explanation below may shed some light on the common symbols found in most cars and some extra ones for 4x4s (symbols to be read from left to right with their corresponding explanations from top to bottom).

Battery Light: The car’s electrical system is either short of power or the battery is not charging properly. It normally indicates a problem with the battery itself or the alternator.

Oil Pressure: Loss of oil pressure, which means engine oil is low or completely lost.

Brake System: Brake issue. You may also see a light that says “Brake.” This can indicate that either the handbrake is still engaged, brake fluid is low, or the brake system is faulty.

Temperature: The engine is or is very close to overheating. You may also have a temperature gauge with a red section (H) at the highest end.

Parking: Your handbrake or electronic parking brake (EPB) is currently engaged.

Airbag Warning: Airbag is not functioning or there’s a problem with the system.

Safety Symbols

Check Engine: The most famous symbol among all. It indicates a general engine running problem. Sometimes the word “CHECK” or “CHECK ENGINE” appears near the engine symbol; or it may appear as a word without any symbols.

Tyre Pressure Monitoring System (TPMS): Usually equipped on higher-end cars, the symbol appears when one or more of your tyres are low in pressure. The warning light is usually in red or yellow colour.

Traction Control: If the light illuminates or flashes, it means that the system has been activated for your safety.

Traction Control Off: The system has been manually deactivated and this usually appears in off-road or high-performance track driving scenarios. For normal driving, never turn off traction or stability control.

Anti-Lock Braking: There’s something wrong with the anti-lock brake system, which requires a professional diagnosis to fix.

4x4 Symbols

4x4 Engaged: Your truck is currently in 4x4 mode, whether in 4L (4 Low) or 4H (4 High). Never use 4L or 4H in normal driving conditions.

4x4 Diff Lock Engaged: When this button/knob is engaged, it locks both front or rear wheels for equal split of torque between the front and rear axles. Only do this in extreme off-roading.


If we were to discuss every single warning light in a car ever created, it would be a very long article. The above examples are some of the most common ones, handy enough for most of us to refer to when a warning light pops up on our dash.

Above all, you can always go through the owner’s manual to obtain specific information; especially if you’re driving higher-end, modern cars with more intricate systems and electronics which require extra care and attention.

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