What Does That Light on My Dash Mean?

Mike Schlee
by Mike Schlee

Modern cars are full of wondrous technology, but sometimes, things go wrong.

To help warn a driver of a vehicle malfunction, a whole swarm of warning lights are included in a vehicle’s dashboard and center gauge cluster. But what do they all mean?

Should You Rust Proof Your New Car?

Some are obvious while others are not, and many can’t be deciphered unless you look to the owner’s manual. Here is a comprehensive list of what the most common warning lights mean. Check back often, as this index will be updated all the time.

Want to get rid of a check engine light? Get an OBD Reader

Signifies the all-wheel drive or 4X4 system is engaged. Can also mean there is a problem with the all-wheel-drive system if the light remains on even when the system is disengaged.
ABS light. On some vehicles, it may illuminate if the anti-lock braking system is active. If it remains illuminated, there is most likely a fault with the ABS system. Light can be yellow, orange or red.
Images with Witness lights on board table symbols signs explanations
Signifies adaptive cruise is engaged. If the light remains on when the system is disengaged, there may a problem with the adaptive cruise.
Can relate to a self-leveling suspension system or height-adjustable suspension. May flash when system is raising or lowering the vehicle. If constantly illuminated, there may be an issue with the suspension.
Self-leveling and/or active headlights. Relates to the high-intensity discharge headlights that self level. If the light stays illuminated, there may be an issue with the system.
Indicates low-beam headlights are currently turned on. Could be illuminated in green, yellow or even red. Will never be illuminated in blue, as that color refers to high beam head lights.
Signifies the high beam headlights are currently active. This warning light is always illuminated in a bright blue. If the light is always illuminated even when the high beams are not activated, there may be a fault with the lighting system.
Indicates the automatic high beam headlights are active. Automatic high beams turn on and off when other vehicles are detected on the road. The light may remain illuminated even during the day time.
Illuminates when the front fog lights are on. This light differs from the rear fog light warning light by pointing towards the left with the horizontal lines angled slightly downward.
Signifies the rear fog lights are currently on. A rear fog light is used in poor weather conditions like fog, rain or snow. It allows vehicles approaching from behind to see your car. Should not be used in good weather conditions.
Refers to an adjustable suspension setup. May illuminate when the suspension is changing heights or even when a vehicle has entered into a sport mode. Most likely though, if illuminated, it refers to a fault with the suspension system.
This is an air bag warning light. In most cars, it illuminates when the vehicle first starts up. But if the light remains on, there is an issue with one of the vehicle’s airbags and the car needs to taken to a mechanic immediately.
This is Mercedes-Benz’s attention assist feature. Many other manufacturers have similar setups that are designed to help ensure a driver does not become drowsy behind the wheel.
If this light is illuminated, it refers to a fault with the automatic transmission system. It’s best to take your vehicle to a mechanic as soon as possible if this light remains on.
This is the battery light. If the ignition is on but the vehicle is not, the light will remain illuminated to indicate the car is current running all accessories on battery power only. If it remains on while the car is running, it may indicate a fault with the vehicle’s electrical system.
Indicates that one or more of the vehicle’s exterior brake lights are currently inoperable. Most likely, it will just be a burnt out bulb, but it could refer to a larger problem.
This is the brake pad light. It indicates that a vehicle’s brake pads are faulty, damaged or in need of replacement. If this light remains on, take your vehicle to a mechanic as soon as possible.
Indicates that there is an issue with one of the exterior lights, not necessarily a brake light. It could be any one of the parking or indicator lights on the vehicle. They may be burnt out or there may be an electrical fault.
No, this light does not mean the BBQ is warmed up and ready. It refers to a vehicle’s emissions control catalytic convertor being faulty and most likely in need of replacement.
This is a fairly self explanatory light. A lot of new vehicles have an oil life monitor built on-board that tracks when exactly it’s time to change the oil. When illuminated, it’s time to head to the mechanic for some new oil.
Unlike the light above, this light doesn’t refer to an impending oil change. It indicates that the engine oil level is low and requires a top-up immediately. If flashing, the oil level may be empty or at critical levels.

The most common warning, the check engine light (CEL) is a catch-all light that may refer to an engine issue, loose gasoline cap or faulty sensor. If illuminated in yellow or amber, take your car to a mechanic at your earliest convenience. It glowing red, take your car in immediately.

Images with Witness lights on board table symbols signs explanations
This light refers to a convertible’s power retractable top. The light will most likely be illuminated when the roof is opening and closing. If it remains lit at all times, chances are there is an issue with the roof.
Signifies that the vehicle’s engine coolant level is low. The first light on the far left may refer to any coolant-related issue.
Indicates the vehicle’s coolant is too hot and overheating. If this light comes on, pull over as soon as safely possible before any more damage occurs.
This light means the cruise control is turned on. It may not actually be active, but it is ready for use. The light can be any color, but usually illuminates in green, yellow or orange. If the light is on even when the system is turned off, there might be an issue that needs to be looked at.
This light is found in modern diesel vehicles only. It indicates that the additive fluid used to help control diesel emissions is low and needs to be topped up. If it remains on after the top-up, there may be a larger issue.
Another light that is found exclusively in diesel fueled vehicles, this one also relates to emissions controls. The particle filter that’s part of the exhaust system is most likely clogged and requires attention.
One of the more obvious dashboard lights, these refer to a door being left open. In some vehicles, this light may illuminate if the rear hatch or trunk is open as well.
More of a gimmick light than anything else, a lot of newer vehicles come with eco-indicators like this that inform drivers how efficiently their current driving behavior is. Whether it’s on or not, there is no real concern with this light.
A modern safety feature offered on a lot of new cars, all of these lights refer to forward collision warnings. The red bar of lights illuminates at the base of a vehicle’s windshield when a crash appears imminent, while the other lights illuminate when the system is manually turned off or if there is a fault with the system.
A true off-road vehicle will be offered with a two-speed transfer case that includes a four-wheel low system. This light illuminates when the four-wheel low system is engaged. If the light is on when the vehicle is not in four-wheel low, there may be an issue with the system.
An icon depicting a vehicle and a gas cap, the warning light simply means that the gas cap is either missing or loose. A gas cap needs to be in place for a vehicle to properly pass emission standards.
Another diesel-specific warning light, this is not a pig’s tail, but rather an icon that refers to glow plugs. A diesel vehicle needs the glow plugs to warm up before it can be started. This light will remain illuminated when a key is first put in the ignition until the plugs are ready.
An indicator for the hazard lights, the light should only be illuminated when the hazard lights are active. The light may flash along with the four-way flashers when active.
This light refers to hill descent control. Some vehicles have a low-speed cruise control system that helps a vehicle creep slowly down a steep hill by using the brakes and engine management. If the light is illuminated when not in use, there may be an issue with hill descent control.
A simple light, this one indicates the vehicle’s hood is open. An easy way to distinguish this from the trunk open light below is by looking at the picture of the car. The front features a longer, more sloped hood.
Similar to the light above, this one refers to the trunk being open. An easy way to distinguish this from the hood open light is by looking at the picture of the car. The back features a shorter, squared off trunk.
These lights refer to a vehicle’s security and may mean a few different things. It could indicate the key is not in the car, the vehicle’s active security system is on, or there is a fault with the ignition key.
Another modern safety feature in many vehicles is a lane departure warning system. This light will illuminate if the system has been manually disabled or there is a fault with it.
Similar to the lane departure warning system, this light refers to the active lane keep system. This light will illuminate if the system has been manually disabled or there is a fault with it.
These lights simply refer to the fact that the vehicle is low on fuel and needs a fill-up soon. Every vehicle is different and the amount of fuel range left when the light first comes on can vary.
A vehicle will perform optimally when properly warmed up. These lights indicate the engine temperature is still low and is warning you not to drive too hard until the vehicle reaches proper operating temperatures. These lights are usually blue in color.
Vehicles come with tire pressure monitoring systems that keep track of how much pressure is left in all of the tires. If this light is illuminated, one or more of the tire’s pressure is low and needs to be attended to.
This light could be lit in a multitude of colors. It means the windshield washer fluid is low and needs to filled. The washer fluid may also be used for the rear window and HID headlight lenses.
Not that common any more, this light indicates a vehicle’s overdrive system is currently disabled. It will light up if overdrive has been manually disabled or if there is a problem with the transmission.
Signifies the parking and/or emergency brake is currently applied. Illuminates any time the vehicle’s mechanical or electrical brake is on. If the brake has been released, but the light remains on, there may be an issue with the system.
This light refers to a fault in the power steering system. It can be displayed in a multitude of colors, but usually red or amber. If illuminated, the vehicle should be taken to a mechanic as soon as possible.
This light means “please depress the brake pedal.” It can be illuminated when trying to start the vehicle and/or when attempting to put the vehicle into gear. Different vehicles can have a theme on this image.
If you happened to buy a vehicle with a manual transmission, you have seen this warning light. It signifies the clutch needs to be depressed, usually when starting the ignition. It differs from depress brake pedal image by lacking the extra crescents on the sides of the circle.
This light refers to automatic lights and/or rain sensing wipers. It may be illuminated if either function has been manually shut off or if there is an issue with the system.
Some vehicles come equipped with power retractable spoilers. This light usually indicates the spoiler is currently deployed. It may also flash when the spoiler is rising or retracting.
This is the seat belt light. It illuminates if the car is in motion and the driver’s seat belt is not fastened. Most modern cars also come equipped with a sensor in the front passenger seat and if a passenger is detected without a seat belt fastened, the light will illuminate.
These are the service vehicle lights. They are similar to the check engine lights, but refer to the vehicle as a whole and not just the engine. They may indicate a fault in the wheels, brakes, suspension, etc. The lights can be amber, orange or red.
Refers to the stability control system. Can be illuminated if the stability control has been manually disabled by the driver. Some vehicles will flash this symbol when the stability control is actively working. It may also stay lit up if there is an issue with the system.
This light can be related to the automatic start or start/stop system. With an automatic starter, the light may be illuminated until the car is manually started using the key. In a vehicle with start/stop, the light will illuminate if the system is turned off by the driver or if there is a fault.
This light indicates the steering is locked. Many vehicles will lock the steering in place when the ignition is not in the ‘run’ position. Others can lock the steering if the programmed chip in the key is not present.
A light referring to a trailer hitch lock system some vehicles are equipped with. It will turn on if the vehicle detects the trailer hitch is currently unlocked or if there is a fault with the system.
The left and right arrows are the turn signal indicators. Usually green in color, the left signal will flash when the left turn indicator is selected and the right will flash when the right indicator is selected. A lot of vehicles will flash both together when the hazard lights are switched on.
Refers to parking sensors. A lot of modern vehicles are equipped with parking sensors that help aid in parking in tight spaces. This light will illuminate when the system has been manually turned off or if there is an issue with the sensors.
This pair of sideways pointed lights refers to a vehicle’s exterior indicator lights, often referred to as parking lights. When the vehicles full lighting system is on, this light will illuminate.
Mike Schlee
Mike Schlee

A 20+ year industry veteran, Mike rejoins the AutoGuide team as the Managing Editor. He started his career at a young age working at dealerships, car rentals, and used car advertisers. He then found his true passion, automotive writing. After contributing to multiple websites for several years, he spent the next six years working at the head office of an automotive OEM, before returning back to the field he loves. He is a member of the Automobile Journalists Association of Canada (AJAC), and Midwest Automotive Media Association (MAMA). He's the recipient of a feature writing of the year award and multiple video of the year awards.

More by Mike Schlee

Join the conversation
3 of 12 comments