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Know the warning signs on your car’s dashboard

Know the warning signs on your car’s dashboard

If the only light you recognise or do anything about on your dashboard is a warning that you are low on fuel, it may be time to brush up on your car’s other warning signs.

Motor Industry Workshop Association (MIWA) chairman Dewald Ranft says vehicles are complex by design, made up of a myriad of sensors and components which all perform a particular function, which is why motorists should know what the warning lights on their dashboard mean. The average car today has over two dozen computer modules working behind the scenes, a vast network of sensors and hundreds of electrical wires, linking all these components together. With this complexity, a lot can go wrong with the vehicle and the first indication is often a warning light on the dashboard. 

“Although the majority of motorists do not know exactly how a car functions, most know there are basic things which need to be checked and maintained regularly to keep the car on the road – petrol, oil, water, for starters.

“Looking after the basics and ensuring you have regular services are all very important but the reality is a lot can go wrong with a car over its lifespan,” says Ranft.

He says the warning lights on a dashboard are similar to the human body - when a “component” of our body malfunctions there are warning signs.

The difference is humans don’t have a dashboard on which we can see exactly what the root of the problem is, which often leaves us scrambling for answers at medical professionals.

Dashboard lights in a car tell us what the problem is (or at least which component is at fault) and different coloured lights indicate the urgency of the issue - which means there is no excuse for ignoring a warning about a malfunction in your car.

The rule of thumb is that red warning lights need immediate action and amber, orange and other colour lights often mean something needs checking out at a garage.

Ranft adds it is normal for dashboard lights to come on when you start your car but if one or more stay on while you are driving you need to pay attention and look into it.

Common warning lights in a car:

Engine management light

While not advisable, it is safe to drive unless this light is flashing while you are driving. Get a reputable workshop to check the engine as soon as possible either way. A sensor has alerted the engine control unit something is not right and this is why this light has come on.  

Engine management light

Battery warning light

It is not safe to drive at all if this light is on as you battery is not charging. Stop the car and contact your towing service. There may be a problem with the wiring, the alternator or the alternator drive belt.

Battery warning light

Oil level warning light

Do not continue driving as this light comes on when there is no oil pressure in the engine. Top up as soon as possible at a garage and if the light stays on it means there is a problem with the oil supply. The cause of this could be a blocked oil filter or oil pump. Cars need the correct oil pressure to stay lubricated or the engine can be damaged.

Oil level warning light

Brake warning light

If you feel you have to press your brake pedal further than usual, there is a good chance your hydraulic brake circuits have failed. Pull over immediately and get help. If the brake fluid level is fine it could be a sensor problem and it will be safe to drive to a garage.

 Brake warning light

Anti-lock braking system (ABS) warning light

As long as there are no noises coming from the wheels, it should be safe to continue driving. Check your user manual to be sure and rather have it checked out as soon as possible. Be extra cautious in wet or slippery conditions when this warning light is on

Anti-lock braking system (ABS) warning light

Anti-lock braking system (ABS) warning light

“It is in every motorists’ best interest to familiarise themselves with the user manual for their car and ensure they have a good insurance policy which includes roadside assistance.

“Every component and an explanation of its function is available in the owner’s manual. Always refer to this when you are in doubt and ensure you have insurance which offers a towing service, no matter when and where you may need it,” Ranft concludes.