The secret language of cars - What do those dashboard icons mean?

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Do you know what your car is trying to tell you?

On the dashboard of every car lurk hidden hieroglyphics – those little pictures your car uses to communicate to drivers the important information about the systems within the car.

Some you may see every time you start up and drive your car, and others may remain elusive until something goes wrong. Here’s a cheat sheet of some of these symbols so you don’t get caught off guard, and can handle the situation like a pro!

Colour matters

Green, blue, and white icons are generally ‘information only’ (but this may vary depending on the make and model of your car). They don’t indicate something is wrong, but that a system or part is engaged (‘on’) and working properly. You probably see at least one of these when you drive. They include the turn indicators, headlight, high-beam, and fog light indicators, and the climate control settings, like the window de-fogger.

One exception to this rule may be the ‘coolant temperature’ indicator, which lights up when the engine fluid is either too cold or too hot to function efficiently, and may be blue to indicate that the temperature is too cold. If you see this when you start your car – particularly on a brisk morning – you should let it idle for a few minutes, letting the engine and fluids warm up. If the coolant is at risk of overheating, the same icon may appear in red (see below).

Yellow or orange icons generally indicate something needs to be serviced or repaired soon. If it’s blinking or flashing, you should contact your mechanic right away. The ‘check engine’ usually appears in yellow, and is often accompanied by other icons of systems that are affected by or influencing the engine issue.

Depending on the make and model of the car, some ‘reminder’ symbols may also be in yellow, like the ‘low windscreen washer fluid’ icon, and gas and oil level indicators. If your car is fully or partially electric, there should be an indicator when your fuel-cell is in need of a charge, as well.

Red symbols indicate something that needs to be attended to right away, because the system is not working properly or will not engage when needed. These are the ones that you may not see or notice until something is wrong, so we’ve singled some out to go over in more detail:

Airbag system

The airbag symbol should light up briefly when you start your car, but if it does not turn off this means there is something wrong with the system, and it will not deploy.

Brake system

This could indicate the brake fluid is low, or that there is something else wrong with the braking system. If the brake fluid level is OK, or you top it up and the light is still on, you should see your mechanic right away.

Coolant warning

This could mean the levels are running low, and you should check the gauge on the coolant tank. When red, it usually means the engine is at risk of overheating. This could be indicative of a major issue, so getting your car serviced when this light comes on is highly recommended.

Battery charge warning

Like the airbag icon, this one will light up when you start your car. If it doesn’t turn off after a moment, there is an issue with either the battery itself, the alternator, or an associated system. You should have this one looked at right away.

Oil level, pressure and temperature indicators

 

If you see an oilcan appear in red, you should stop immediately and seek help. If the level or pressure of the oil has gotten too low, it can cause major engine damage. If the oil has gotten too hot, it is best to at least stop and let it cool before continuing.

Red can also be used for very important reminders, like that the parking brake is engaged, or one of the doors or the boot or bonnet is ajar. The seatbelt reminders for the driver and front passenger also usually appear in red.

The more systems you have in your car – like 4-wheel drive or anti-lock braking – the more icons your dashboard will display. You should always take the time to read over your log book to familiarize yourself with the particular ‘language’ your car uses to communicate with you, so you’re not caught off guard if one of these symbols suddenly lights up on your dashboard.

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