Decoding your dash: 15 common car dashboard symbols deciphered

Finance Journalist · 13 February 2020

Wondering what that flashing light on your car’s dashboard means?

While some symbols are fairly self-explanatory (like if you haven’t buckled up your seatbelt or have left the car door open), others can be a bit harder to decipher. They can also seem a bit alarming, particularly if they’re beeping and flashing at you. 

To help you decode your dashboard, we explain what 15 common car symbols mean and what you can do if they appear. 

Keep in mind that your car’s warning lights may vary in appearance and colour depending on your vehicle’s make and manufacturer. If in doubt, it’s a good idea to consult your owner’s manual. If you’re still unsure, the safest option may be to get your car checked out by a mechanic

What does the colour of the light mean?

Firstly, it can be a good idea to take note of the colour of the symbol when it lights up. This can often give you an indication of how serious the problem is. 

According to car dealer Motorama, a red warning light suggests there may be a serious problem, an orange or yellow warning light may mean that something needs to be checked or serviced soon, and a green or blue light typically indicates that a system is operating normally – for example, if you turn on your headlights or your high beam. 

1. Engine temperature light

Engine temperature light

If this thermometer-shaped symbol lights up, NRMA says it means your engine is not at its recommended temperature. In most modern cars, the symbol will be blue if the engine temperature is too cold, and red if it is too hot. If the light is blue when you first start up your car, it will typically turn off after a minute or so, once your engine warms up to the right temperature. If the light is red, there may be a problem with your coolant. If your car is overheating, NRMA recommends pulling over to a safe location and calling roadside assistance for help.

2. Oil pressure light

Oil pressure light

Shaped like an old-fashioned oil can, this symbol will light up if your oil pressure is too low. For example, Sun Auto Service says this may be because there isn’t enough oil in your car’s system or the oil pump may be faulty. Sun Auto Service recommends that you stop driving, let your engine cool down and check your oil level. 

3. Check engine light

Check engine light

The check engine light indicates that there’s something wrong with your engine. This could be something minor, like a loose petrol cap, or it could signal a more serious issue with your engine. If this light turns on, Supercheap Auto says to get your engine checked out as soon as possible.

4. ABS light

ABS light

If the ABS light illuminates, this indicates there’s an issue with your Anti-lock Braking System (ABS) and it may be disabled. Your ABS is designed to stop your wheels from locking up and skidding when braking under adverse conditions, like slippery roads. RACQ says your car can still be driven with just the standard brakes, but warns you should take extra care if you do so and should go to a mechanic as soon as you can.

5. Battery light

Battery light

This light indicates there’s a problem with your battery’s charging system. For example, says it could mean there is an issue with the car battery itself or an issue with the alternator (which is what generates the power that is stored in the battery). If your battery light illuminates when you turn on the ignition and then your car won’t start, this means your battery is probably flat. You may need to call roadside assistance for a new battery or see a mechanic and have the battery and charging system checked out.

6. Brake light

Brake light

As you may already have noticed, your brake light (which usually looks like a circle with an exclamation mark or a capital P) will turn on when your parking brake is engaged. However, if it lights up when the handbrake is fully released, Honda says your car may be low on brake fluid or there could be a malfunction in the braking system itself. Honda recommends pulling over immediately and calling roadside assistance.

7. Airbag light

Airbag light

If the airbag light illuminates, this indicates that there’s something wrong with one or more of your airbags, or with the system as a whole. Mechanic directory Your Mechanic recommends going to a mechanic as soon as possible. Otherwise, you could run the risk of your airbags not deploying correctly in the event of a crash. 

It’s also important to check whether your car is affected by the compulsory recall for defective Takata airbags. You can check whether your vehicle is affected by contacting your vehicle’s manufacturer, visiting Product Safety Australia or by visiting The ACCC has also issued another warning for vehicles fitted with a different type of faulty Takata airbag. A list of vehicles that may be affected can be found here.

8. Traction control light

Traction control light

Your traction control light is usually shaped like a car swerving on a road or a TC symbol. According to Car Bibles, most modern cars will have an integrated traction control system. This system is designed to help you maintain control and stability of your car and stop your car from skidding if it’s losing traction – for example, if you’re driving in rainy weather. 

In most cases the light will come on when you’re accelerating, Car Bibles says. If it illuminates, this may mean there is a problem somewhere in your vehicle or with the computing system itself. Car Bibles recommends driving slowly, finding somewhere safe to stop and calling a mechanic. 

According to Your Mechanic, some traction control lights will come on when there is rainy or snowy weather and then the light will go away. If this happens, it may mean that the system has been activated. However, Your Mechanic says to read your owner’s manual to see how your car’s traction control system works and what to expect.

9. Security light

Security light

Your car’s security light usually looks like a car with a key or a padlock. According to Virginia Tire & Auto, it might light up briefly when you turn your car on, which generally doesn’t mean anything is wrong. However, if it turns on when your car’s engine is running, it may mean your car’s anti-theft system is malfunctioning. If this is the case, it could be a good idea to head to a mechanic to get it checked out.

10. Automatic transmission light

Automatic transmission light

The automatic transmission light indicates there’s something wrong with your car’s automatic transmission. Your automatic transmission monitors things like fluid temperature, fluid level and the pressure inside the transmission. If this symbol appears, Your Mechanic recommends getting this checked out as soon as possible, as transmission problems can be expensive to fix.

11. Low tyre pressure light

Tyre pressure light

The low tyre pressure light indicates that the pressure in one or more of your car’s tyres is too low. Pull over when it’s safe to do so and visually check your tyres for any punctures – you may need to replace your tyre if you do see a puncture. However, if they appear to be intact, head to a service station, check the air pressure of your tyres and inflate them to the recommended level.

12. Fog light

Fog light

The fog light symbol will light up when you turn on your fog lights. This looks similar to your headlight symbol, except instead of multiple lines pointing down, it has a wavy line with three lines through it. Fog lights are typically low-mounted lights that are designed to make it easier to see the road in foggy conditions, but they can dazzle other road users if there is no fog. Make sure you only use them when it is appropriate to do so. All Australian states and territories have laws making it illegal to use fog lights when there’s no fog or mist affecting your visibility.

13. Steering lock light

Steering lock light

Your steering lock light will usually look like a steering wheel with a key or a padlock next to it. The steering lock is an anti-theft feature that automatically locks the steering wheel if it is moved when your car is off. If the steering lock is activated, Your Mechanic says you can turn it off by turning your keys in the ignition while turning your wheel in either direction. This shouldn’t take too much force, it says.

14. Low fuel level light

Low fuel light

There’s a good chance you’ve seen this symbol before, it simply means your car is running low on fuel. Depending on the make and model of your car, Your Mechanic found you may be able to drive about an extra 40 to 183 kilometres after the low fuel light comes on. For example, it found that a Toyota Corolla can squeeze in about another 96 to 135 kilometres, while a Mazda CX-5 can drive an about extra 107 to 146 kilometres. Instead of risking it though, it’s a good idea to pull into a petrol station when you can to fill up. Otherwise, you might find yourself walking to the petrol station and carrying back fuel.

15. Low washer fluid light

Low washer fluid

This symbol will light up if your car is running low on washer fluid. Washer fluid helps to keep your front windshield clean and remove dirt and debris. If you see this symbol, it’s a good idea to refill the washer fluid tank as soon as you can. While you can use plain water, notes that washer fluid contains chemicals that are meant to clean up debris. It may also contain ethanol or antifreeze to stop it from freezing during cold weather. Your windscreen washer fluid tank is located under the hood of your car. As Ford explains, it usually looks like a white, translucent container with a windshield/water symbol on the cap. If your car has a rear windscreen wiper, there may also be a second tank for this.

How to get roadside assistance if you need it

If your car battery dies, you get a flat tyre or you run out of fuel, roadside assistance can help to fix your problem. Roadside assistance is available from motoring clubs like NRMA, RACV, RACQ and RAA, and it can also be included in your car insurance as an included or optional extra. Major car companies may also offer roadside assistance as part of their new car warranty. 

If you run into a problem on the road, roadside assistance will usually firstly try to solve your problem over the phone. If they can’t, they’ll typically then send out a technician out to you to fix it or tow your car to a mechanic.  

Main image source: Debbie Ann Powell (Shutterstock); Image sources: Alhovik, Ensuper, joonbug, nendra wahyu kuncoro (Shutterstock)