Don’t Panic! - A Quick Guide To Warning Lights


Don’t Panic! - A Quick Guide To Warning Lights

People often equate any kind of warning light appearing on their car’s instrument cluster as a sign of trouble. Even a harmless symbol about the parking/ hand brake illuminating could cause a little scare for the unfamiliar. It’s understandable, because certain lights can mean major problems, sometimes resulting in big repair bills.

Let’s remember, though, that your car is doing you a huge favour by giving off an early warning that something is wrong, even if you can’t see, hear or feel a problem, potentially saving itself from a far more serious issue if left unattended.

It’s unfortunate that some drivers still seem blissfully unaware of what these warning lights mean when they flash up, continuing to drive their car normally even if a problem is being highlighted and needs immediate attention. Don’t worry, and don’t be shy about not knowing, we’ve got your back.

Here’s the 5 most important warning lights you might see on your car and what they mean.

Traction/Stability Control

Panic Level: Ok lah….but keep an eye on it.

You might see this little guy pop up when your Traction Control or Stability Control systems detect loss of grip or control, using computer controlled sensors to monitor surface conditions and vehicle movement.

The most common cause is slippery road conditions where the vehicle is struggling to maintain adequate grip, hence why the symbol shows some squiggly lines behind the car. However, you’ll also see the symbol if the system is either fully or partially turned off (by you), though we recommend leaving it on at all times - at least while on public roads.

If the traction control system is on but the warning light remains persistently illuminated, there could be an issue with your ECU or the sensors associated with traction/ stability control, in which case a trip to the service centre is necessary.

Since 90 percent of the time, this warning light will turn on to warn you of slippery conditions or if you disabled the function yourself, there’s not all that much to be worried about. But we can definitely understand why it would be a little distressing.

Coolant Temperature

Panic Level: Macam serious ni….

This is a light you should definitely pay attention to. If it’s lit, that means your engine is getting too hot and that could be due to a number of factors. Coolant level should be your first port of call, so take note of the temperature gauge position and, regardless, quickly find a safe spot to pull the car over and turn the engine off to let the engine cool down.

If your car has a visible coolant reservoir or overflow tank, observe the level of fluid. Low coolant might just need a simple top up but could also be a symptom of a larger problem, and is most likely due to a hose or seal leak, which can be easily patched up. However, be wary of coolant leaking into the engine as that could cause internal corrosion, engine seizing, and other long term damage which could cost quite a bit in parts and labour to resolve.

It could also be a faulty fan that isn’t blowing air into the engine bay, an issue that isn’t noticeable while driving at highway speeds but gets very worrisome in traffic where heat can build up quicker than the radiator can dissipate it. Then again, if you spot this light coming on and pull over to find the car isn’t abnormally warm, then it could be a problem with the temperature sensors giving incorrect readings. Check with your service centre to be sure.

Gearbox Temperature

Panic Level: Can start to worry.

Apart from the motor, the transmission is the other mission critical component to your car, and with modern gearboxes, they’re often more complexly engineered than engines. And like an engine, heat can build up quickly, that requires a cooling system.

For example, a common torque converter automatic is filled with fluid which lubricates and is the medium by which the engine’s power is transferred to the gear set. In addition, this fluid also stores heat which is usually dissipated via the transmission oil cooler.

This fluid can get dirty over time, like engine oil, compromising its lubricating and heat retaining characteristics as well as causing premature wear, so it’s definitely advisable to also replace transmission oil according to the recommended schedule. Dirty fluid is also more abrasive, which could be the cause of the addition of friction and heat buildup, hence the warning light.

A transmission temperature warning light is a rarer sight, which indicates a more pressing issue may be at hand. Take no chances and stop driving the car as soon as possible before getting the car checked up by an expert.

Oil Pressure, Oil Level

Panic level: Serious jugak…

Oil can be thought of as the lifeblood of any engine, so when a this light comes on, you’ll know that it can be potentially catastrophic. Don’t worry, though, it usually isn’t.

The most common instance of this warning light coming on is, ironically, quick direction changes or long sharp corners that drag engine oil away from the sump and oil pump. It’s temporary and will normalise post-corner but with any duration with reduced oil pressure, the engine isn’t receiving the protective film of oil it needs to operate without eating itself. This metal-on-metal friction could lead to greatly accelerated engine wear and overheating components.

If it remains persistently illuminated, it is not advisable to drive the car as it could compound internal damage, so pull over where safe and turn off the engine as soon as possible to call for assistance.

Another common cause for loss of oil pressure is a faulty oil pump or clogged filter, and they both usually stem from dirty oil that’s full of metal particulates and other grit and can break down seals, o-rings, bearings, and quickly fill up an oil filter - rendering it useless.

Many engines also use variable valve timing and lift systems that rely on oil pressure to actuate, and dirty oil can clog up the channels and passages essential to their operation. Therefore, remember to change your oil at the recommended intervals to keep the engine clean.

If the oil level is low, checking it is as easy as pulling out that dipstick and measuring. Engines do burn oil at a slow rate, though, so don't worry if there's less oil in your engine after a lot of mileage. However, it's always recommended to top up the oil to get back into the 'sweet spot' as shown on that dipstick.

An abnormally high rate of oil loss is cause for concern as there could be a leak (check your parked car overnight for ground deposits) or, worse, oil seeping into the combustion chamber and being burned with fuel.

Service Light

Panic level: Keep it in mind….

Because a lot of a car’s problems can be prevented with regular maintenance, most ‘Service’ warning lights are just a mechanism installed by manufacturers to ensure that owners adhere to their recommended intervals by constantly reminding them.

Seeing it come on could incite some level of urgency to book your next service appointment, but it isn’t triggered by a magic monitor of a car’s health, rather it runs on a set rule. It could be programmed to flash every 10,000km from the last reset or a certain time elapsed (such as 6 months), which ever comes first. Even better, there’s usually always a quick way to reset it yourself if it really bothers you.

But seriously, service your car. And often.

Jim Kem

Jim Kem

Content Producer

There's just something about cars. It's a conveyance, it's a liability, it's a tool; but it can also be a source of joy, pride, inspiration and passion. It's much like clothes versus fashion. And like the latter, the pursuit of perfection never ends.


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