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Indicator Lights: What to Know and Why it Matters

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You’re driving down I-74, heading back from a weekend at the coast, when suddenly your dashboard lights start chiming at you and light up. What’s happening? Are they telling you of an impending disaster, or are they just gentle reminders and nudges for car maintenance?

The trouble is, once you’ve been driving for years, you forget the importance of indicator lights, or what they could mean. Or you buy this car, then that, then another, and you forget that certain brands have different icons or symbols from the previous vehicles you owned. Dashboard indicator lights—maybe not the most exciting things about your vehicle, but they are actually rather essential to the overall function of it. And the indicator lights aren’t just about functions your vehicle performs. They also help you make decisions about maintenance needs, they give you information so that you can make the best decisions (your speedometer and gas gauge both do this) and, of course, they also warn you of critical issues you need to deal with. Let’s look at some key indicator lights across the industry, and consider their importance.

Standard Indicator Lights


The anti-lock braking system’s indicator light tells you there is a malfunction with either the ABS system or with the Brake Assist system (if equipped). This should be considered an indication of a critical issue that needs to be attended to straight away. If your ABS indicator comes on, be sure you safely navigate it to the nearest mechanic or, better still, call a tow truck—you don’t want your braking system to give out, and end up causing an accident!

Charging System

This indicator light will notify you of a malfunction in the vehicle’s charging system. But what does that mean? Obviously, since it looks like a battery, it can imply that your vehicle’s battery isn’t recharging properly, whilst you drive. It can also indicate an electrical issue with your car, which could mean a short in the wiring or could spell damage for things like your alternator or other system motors (windows, windshield wipers, etc.). Obviously check the battery charge, if you have a reader for that, but definitely take your vehicle in for service.

Cruise Control Indicator

This one is straight forward: your cruise control is on. Though that seems a no-brainer, if you are ever out on the highway and have turned it on, then stepped on the gas to pass someone, it’s important to check your dashboard to see if the cruise control system is still engaged. Most, but not all vehicles (especially older ones), will disengage the cruise control features if you step on the brakes; but if you step on the gas, it may only let you speed up and then default the car’s speed to the cruise control settings previously established. It’s always safer to check and ensure whether or not the system is still engaged, after manually controlling the gas pedal.

Electric Power Steering

This one certainly ranges among the most important indicators, because if you have a malfunction with your Electric Power Steering (EPS) system, you could quite obviously end up in a car accident. It’s so important to visit your dealer straight away if this indicator comes on.


This indicator informs you when you have the headlights, parking lights, taillights, license plate, or instrumental panel lights on. Pretty straight forward, right? Well, this is also the light you need to look for on the dashboard when shutting off your car and putting your keys away because no one wants to come back to a car that has a dead battery as a result of leaving the headlights on. (Also, this light won’t illuminate if only the Daytime Running Lights are on.)

High-beam Headlight Indicator

Driving from a woodsy, country house and getting on the main highway? Suddenly car after car flashes their high-beams at you, and you start to get annoyed until you look down at your dashboard. There’s that indicator light on, for your high beams, and you realize you had them on when navigating dark country roads—that’s fine, there. But turn them off in well-lit places or on highways, because those lights can be blinding at night (that’s part of the point so that you can see in very dark areas). The other drivers will thank you.

Malfunction Indicator (Engine)

This is, of course, the big one! If this turns on, there is some malfunction in the engine control system, the throttle control system (for manual transmission vehicles), or the automatic transmission control system (for automatic transmission vehicles). Go directly to the dealer; do not pass “GO!” and do not collect $200. If you don’t go directly to your dealer when this light pops on, you might really damage your engine and pay far more than $200 to restore it.

Low Fuel Level Warning Light

How many times do you look at the gas gauge and promise yourself as it hovers at half a tank, then slips just below, and then flirts with a quarter of a tank, that you will stop and get gas? And still you forget—until this light pops on and beeps at you. Now, you only have a range of 20-30 miles left (depending on the make and model of your vehicle) to locate a gas station and avert the walk of driver’s shame: gas can in hand, slogging it one mile to the next Citgo. Best advice: whenever you flirt with a one-quarter tank, just go and fill up. It’s all-around the smartest way to avoid a totally preventable, highly-irritating scenario!

Tire Pressure Warning Light

How many times have you ignored this one? Following the same train of thought with the low fuel level light, we tend to keep telling ourselves that we will put air in the front right tire, the left rear tire. But every time we drive on a tire with lowered pressure, we are making our tires work harder to keep us on the road (there’s a reason they have grooves in the tires—to create grip) and we are speeding up the time when they will finally go bald. These sorts of lights seem easily dismissed because they don’t strike panic like the “check engine” light can, but low tire pressure means replacing costly tires all the sooner and it means poor gas mileage performance. Just get yourself in the habit of filling up your tires when low (and checking their pressure regularly with a cheap pressure gauge, hung from a key fob). It’s just the smarter way to go!

Brake System Warning Light

If this comes on, pull over safely, bring the vehicle to a complete stop, and call your dealer immediately. (Don’t forget you have a parking brake if you are in a situation where you’ve lost your brakes. If so, stop accelerating and try to drive off to the shoulder of the road and make use of your auxiliary braking systems.) Do not ignore this light, ever! This is a life or death light and indicates either low brake fluid (more easily corrected by simply adding more) or a malfunction in the brake system (which your dealer needs to fix).

Indicator Lights What to Know and Why it Matters“Smart” Indicator Lights

Lane Departure Alert (LDA) Indicator

As cars get smarter, we will see new indicator lights added to our dashboards, like the LDA indicator light. This is a good thing, such new additions, but it means we need to learn what they mean. So, the LDA indicator light tells the drive when she might depart from a lane. If you are on a highway or freeway, with white and yellow lines, the LDA system recognizes these lines with camera sensors; if you begin to float or stray from your lane, the system will beep at you. This sort of system, with its indicator light, is the wave of the future and promises us far smarter driving. That’s a good thing!

BSM Outside Rearview Mirror Indicator

The Blind Sport Monitor (BSM) system provides two services to you, the driver: It can assist the driver in making a decision when to change lanes and, paired with the Rear Cross-Traffic Altert (RCTA) function, it can alert a driver when it’s safe (or not) to back up. This feature can be turned on and off in many of the vehicles that come equipped with it, and it uses the cameras positioned around the body of the vehicle to read and sense the other cars and objects around it. Safer driving, in the future, will mean smarter driving, and the BSM and RCTA functions are part of the wave of future “smart” driving.

Dynamic Radar Cruise Control

Using more cameras and sensors, this system will automatically adjust acceleration and deceleration, as well as, stop the vehicle, when you have the car in cruise control mode. That means your car will read and respond to the speeds and behaviors of cars around it, on the road. Such a feature means we have redundancy built into our driving: sure, we can manually adjust all of these things, but if we have a system that can act as a backup, so we have a safer buffer in our driving decisions, what’s not to like? Again, safer driving in the future will come from smarter features like the Dynamic Radar Cruise Control function.

Indicator Light What to Know and Why it Matters