5 Car Dashboard Warning Lights You Can’t Ignore

Car Trouble - Man Looking Under Hood

Too much month left at the end of your money? It’s a good thing the car has been as reliable as a brick, eh? Until, of course, it isn’t. Preventive maintenance, like oil changes, tire rotations and even major expenses, like timing belt replacements, can be planned in advance and budgeted for. But there are some dashboard warning lights that just can’t be postponed, some of them not even for a day or two.

Here are five car dashboard warning lights that you’ll have to address right now. 

Oil Light

That funny-looking dashboard warning light that comes on when you first start the car, the one that looks kinda like Aladdins’ Lamp? It normally goes off within a second or two when the car starts. If it doesn’t, or if it comes on (and that means even the odd blink as you brake or corner) you need to stop the car immediately and shut off the engine. No, driving a few miles to the next gas station is not immediately. Your engine is dangerously low on oil, so low that the oil pump is sucking air. The lifespan of an engine with no oil flow is measured in seconds, not miles. Check the oil level, and add oil as needed to bring the level on the dipstick to the appropriate level before driving the car. Now you can drive down to your mechanic’s shop to find out why it’s low.  Unless, of course, it’s low because you just haven’t checked it. Shame on you.

Blinking check engine light

Sure, we’ve all read that it’s okay to ignore the check engine dashboard warning light for a little while, and that’s correct—that light means the engine computer is confused about the data it’s getting from one of its dozens of sensors. It’ll run okay until a mechanic can figure it out. But a blinking check engine light is a different animal. It means there’s something wrong that might cause immediate engine damage. The most common scenario is a misfire that can slag down the interior of one or more very pricey catalytic converters. Park the car and get towed to a mechanic.

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You may have the classic signs of overheating: a cloud of vapor and/or the unmistakable maple-syrup-in-a-Turkish-bath funk of a venting cooling system—or maybe not. Your only indication might be the light on the dashboard. Regardless, your engine is on borrowed time, potentially racking up thousands of dollars’ worth of damage, like blown head gaskets or scored cylinders.

As soon as it’s safe, pull over to the side of the road, and shut down the engine. Most cars have a coolant reservoir that’s translucent, so checking to see if there’s enough coolant is simple. While you’re waiting for the tow truck, or if you’re handy, you can try adding some coolant, but you’ll want to wait 20 minutes or so to let the system cool off or you might get sprayed with boiling coolant.

Oil Leaks 

A generation or so ago, cars leaked a fair amount of oil. There was always a greasy spot in the center of the driveway, and freeways were marked by a long, dark gray patch running along every lane of concrete. No more. Better engineering practice, improved seals and EPA regulations have reduced the leakage of oil and transmission fluid from your car to practically zero. A few drops on your driveway are an indication of a problem that’s only gonna get worse. Or, you may have blown a power steering hydraulic line. Maybe the oil filter is starting to come unscrewed. Okay, unlike some of the other issues we’ve talked about today, you can probably drive your vehicle to the repair shop instead of pulling over to the shoulder and calling a cab. Use your judgement on this one.

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TPMS (Tire Pressure Monitoring System)

This one is easy. Just haul out that $4 pencil-style tire gauge from the glove box and check the pressure in the tires. Some higher-end cars may actually be able to read out the tire pressure on the dashboard warning light, saving you that chore. Here’s the problem: the Tire Pressure Monitoring System (TPMS) dashboard warning light only comes on when one (or all) of the tires is more that 20% low. Do the math: if your tire pressure is supposed to be 32psi, the light won’t come on until the pressure is down to 26 psi, and that’s too low for safety or decent handling and braking. If you check right away, like at the next safe pull-off, you might be able to save the tire. And maybe your life, if it’s raining, because under-inflated tires perform terribly on wet pavement. The correct pressure is printed on a placard on the driver’s door frame, and in the owner’s manual.

Whether you need to get your car repaired immediately, or want to book regular maintenance, do it with Openbay. Compare quotes and book service with top repair shops in your area.

Mike Allen
Mike is a guest writer for the Openbay blog. He’s an ASE-certified mechanic, longtime former editor of Popular Mechanics, and world-record-holding race-car driver. For more on Mike, check out his bio here, and find him on his own site, Saturday Mechanic.