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What your warning lights mean

Charl Grobler
February 01, 2018

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All cars have unique aspects, but thankfully warning lights have gradually standardised across most brands. Here’s what some of the most important ones mean.

It’s always quite frightening when one of those blissfully grey symbols on your dashboard lights up and lets you know there’s something wrong under the bonnet. Here we decipher those mystery symbols for you (though you can find explanations for all of them in your car’s handy guide book).

Engine warning light

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This is possibly the most important one to look out for: the engine warning light means that your vehicle’s engine needs immediate attention. In some vehicles it will come on as a steady red or orange light showing and engine symbol, and in others it has the words ‘check engine’ included. Whether it’s flashing or just glowing, you should contact your dealership immediately. Don’t drive your car any further if this light comes on – contact the manufacturer and they will instruct you what to do.

Oil required


Sometimes confused with a magic lamp, this symbol means your vehicle is running low on oil. You should take your car to the closest service station and check the oil immediately. Ignoring this one could cause your engine to fail completely, which will be a very expensive oversight.

Brake system warning light

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This simple exclamation mark alerts you that something is not right with the brake system – it could mean that your handbrake is still engaged, or it could mean that your brake system is faulty – it all depends on the type of vehicle you drive. As a rule of thumb: if your handbrake is not engaged and this light is still showing, you should contact the manufacturer immediately. Don’t drive the vehicle if there’s a chance your brake system is faulty.

ABS (Anti-lock braking system) light

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Many new vehicles will have an ABS light, as well as a brake light (above) – in these cases the brake light will apply only to the handbrake and the ABS will relate to the vehicle braking system. If your ABS light comes on it means your ABS system is not functioning correctly and should be checked as soon as possible as it could affect vehicle safety.

Service required

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The vehicle service light sees more creative licence among manufacturers. Some will have a vehicle and spanner tool symbol, other will just show a spanner. And in many newer cars it simply comes up saying ‘service required / schedule service’. If you see this one, contact your dealership and make arrangements to have your car serviced as soon as possible – you don’t want to leave it too long as going too far over your scheduled service date / mileage could affect your vehicle warranty and also lead to damage.

Temperature warning light

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Often called the ‘ship’s mast’ the temperature warning light must be taken seriously. This light indicates that your engine’s temperature is running too high, and could be due to insufficient water or coolant. You don’t want to drive with an overheating engine, and most manufacturers advise to switch the vehicle off immediately and arrange to have it towed to your dealership if this warning light comes on.

Battery warning light

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This symbol means your vehicle battery is faulty or needs to be replaced. In many modern cars you can no longer access the battery, so it means you need to take your vehicle to a dealership. It’s also not one you want to ignore as you need the battery to start the car.

Windshield washer fluid

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This symbol, often confused with a butterfly, means your windshield washer fluid needs to be filled. You can do this at any service station. It’s best to keep it topped up as you don’t want to get stuck next to the road trying to clean mud off your windscreen just to see where you’re going.

Seatbelt indicator light

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This symbol means that one or more of your passengers (or even the driver) is not wearing their seatbelt. It’s often accompanied by an audible warning as well.  

Airbag warning light

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The airbag warning light differs across brands, but it usually indicates that one or more airbags have been disengaged (if you have child seats), or that there is a problem with the airbag system. If you have not disengaged one or more airbags in order to fit a child seat, you should have your airbag system checked immediately.

Door indicator light

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It looks like a car with wings, but simply means that one or more of the vehicle doors have not been closed properly. In some cases the same light will also indicate if the boot is open, but many vehicles have a separate light showing if the boot lid is not secured.

Fuel light

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Many vehicles have a fuel gauge showing the fuel level, as well as fuel light that will come on when you are dangerously low on fuel. Don’t try to push the limits and see how far you can go with the fuel light on, you can cause damage to the engine or get stuck at the worst possible time.

As a ‘rule of thumb’ the colour of the warning light indicates how serious the situation is. Red means the vehicle should not be driven any further and needs to be towed, orange or yellow means action is required, but you can still drive the car within reason (such as the service light), and green is usually reserved for pure information, rather than warnings (such as time, temperature, or speed).


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