Can you recognise the 5 most misunderstood dashboard warning lights?


Let’s be honest – car maintenance is not something that we’re all as proactive about as we should be. The simple truth is that lots of us deal with car problems on an as-and-when basis. Sometimes we don’t even do that – when dashboard warning lights first pop up, plenty of us are guilty of simply ignoring them, and it’s easier to do that when we don’t know what they mean. Scrap Car Network has recently explained some of the most common dashboard warning lights, but we thought we’d take a different approach, and focus on some of the most dangerously misunderstood. A recent survey by car history checking service HPI found that 59% of their respondents couldn’t recognise the most essential dashboard warning lights. Can you?

Why the colours of dashboard warning lights matter

First of all, humans are hardwired to respond to colour. That’s why, like almost every other sign and indicator on our roads, our dashboard warning lights use colours to communicate vital information to us in a fraction of a second. They work on the same basis as traffic lights – red is the most urgent, whereas green generally tells us not to worry.


When you see a red dashboard light, it means one of two things – either you’ve forgotten to do something, or there’s a big problem. Some red lights will remind you to do things like take the handbrake off, or put on your seatbelt. Others might indicate that your engine is low on coolant, which could mean it’s in danger of overheating. Whatever the case, you should never ignore a red light. Get it to a garage as soon as possible, or even pull over if you think that the danger might be imminent.


A yellow or orange light is there to tell you that one of your car’s components needs servicing or replacing. Generally, you’ll be OK to drive for the time being, but you still shouldn’t ignore it for too long.


If one of your dashboard symbols is lit up in green or blue, it’s not telling you about a problem. Instead, it’s just notifying you of a function that you’ve activated; for example, your cruise control, or your high beams. That means there’s no reason to worry as such, but you should still take the time to make sure you’re not using certain features unnecessarily. For example, using your high beams can dazzle oncoming drivers – so while it might not be very dangerous for you, it certainly is for them!

The four most misunderstood dashboard warning lights

Brake system – 96% of respondents answered incorrectly

We’re starting off with the most terrifying statistic from HPI’s survey. Now, a red brake light could mean one of several things; sometimes, it may just be warning you that you’ve left your handbrake on. However, it could equally be warning you that you’re low on brake fluid, in which case you should never risk driving your car for longer than absolutely necessary. After all, most of us wouldn’t hop on a pushbike with faulty brakes – so why on earth would you risk having them in your car.

DPF (Diesel Particulate Filter) warning – 95% of respondents answered incorrectly

While not posing quite as much of an immediate danger as brake issues, the DPF system is still important; it’s the bit of your car that filters out all harmful soot from your exhaust gases. If it’s faulty or clogged, that means it’s probably not doing its job correctly. Not only is this awful for the environment and anyone who has the misfortune of breathing around your car, but it also has the potential to cause expensive or even irreversible damage. In other words, you could be looking at a serious repair bill or even a written-off car. Don’t take the risk!

Coolant warning light – 93% of respondents answered incorrectly

Plenty of drivers underestimate how important coolant is to their cars. We’ll save you the full science lesson, but suffice to say that in order for your car to propel itself along, it has to generate a lot of energy, and that means involves generating a lot of heat. Without coolant in your engine, the components would be in danger of basically welding themselves together. So if you’re low on coolant, your engine is probably overheating. It could be head gasket failure (an expensive repair), or a leak. A leak isn’t quite as serious, but not something to underestimate either; it’ll still leave quite the dent in your wallet.

Engine maintenance light – 30% of respondents answered incorrectly

We’re happy to report that this is one of the better-known out of all four, but we’re giving it an honourable mention anyway because of the sheer number of drivers who still underestimate the problems it signifies. Your ECU is the Engine Control Unit, which is basically the brain of your car. It’s constantly monitoring the air/fuel mixture in the combustion engine, which must be delicately balanced in order to ensure the smooth functioning of your car.

The engine maintenance light is there to tell you that there’s something stopping the ECU from properly regulating that mixture (for example, a dirty or faulty air flow sensor). That’s why it’s usually accompanied by physical symptoms like a ‘stuttering’ in your engine, or the car randomly lurching forward or hesitating – all of which are indications of small misfires within the engine. Alternatively, you may find you’re unable to go above a certain speed – that’s the result of the ECU putting the engine into ‘safe mode’, which is designed to limit the potential for further damage.

This is definitely one of those situations in which you’ll want to stop and get out of the car as soon as possible. Randomly lurching forward when you’re in a dense traffic jam is a very real possibility, for example, and that’s just one possible scenario!

What happens if you ignore a dashboard warning light?

Some drivers have reported ignoring their dashboard lights for weeks on end. But if you choose to do the same, then you – like them – will be taking a serious risk. A dashboard light is usually giving you a heads-up that something is about to go wrong. When it does, it’ll often happen suddenly, and with potentially devastating consequences. For example, an airbag going off in your face is almost certain to cause a crash.

Yellow lights should be taken seriously, too. After all, you wouldn’t try and walk for any length of distance with a sprained ankle, so why would you put any unnecessary strain on damaged parts of your car? Dashboard warning lights aren’t there to give you jobs to do – they’re there to help save time, money, and possibly even your life.


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