Dashboard warning lights work with your vehicle’s onboard diagnostic system to identify various concerns. Since 1996, the Environmental Protection Agency has required vehicle manufacturers to install OBD systems in all cars sold in the United States.

If you’ve been driving for a long time, chances are you’ve seen at least one light display on your dash. Some prompt you to buckle your seat belt, and others might flag a mechanical issue that requires immediate vehicle service.

With so many different indicators, it’s challenging to understand what they all mean. This guide offers a description of 10 common dashboard warning lights that you should never ignore.

Check engine

The check engine light often scares drivers the most. It’s typically yellow and shaped like an outline of an engine. It might also display just the words “check engine.” The problem with this light is that it can indicate any number of vehicle issues.

According to Consumer Reports, the light can mean “anything from a loose gas cap to a seriously misfiring engine.” If the car seems to be running fine when the light comes on, don’t panic. However, don’t ever ignore this light. It could mean something is wrong with the engine. Get your car into the service department as soon as possible to have it checked out.

Seat belt reminder

Per the Governors Highway Safety Association, all states and the District of Columbia require adults in the front seat to wear seat belts — except New Hampshire. Seat belts are critical vehicle safety items designed to help prevent severe injury or death during a car accident.


If you forget to buckle up, the seat belt warning light comes on, along with a chime to remind you to put on your seat belt. Make sure you click it — for your own safety and to avoid a ticket.

Air bag and seat belt system

The air bag and seat belt system indicator looks like a buckled passenger in a car seat with an air bag over them. This light displays if there is a problem with the air bag or safety restraint system. These are critical safety items. Get your vehicle in for service immediately if you see this light.


The battery light is usually orange and looks like a car battery. This light comes on briefly at startup. According to Firestone, if it stays on, comes on while driving or the car won’t start, it could mean something is wrong with your battery, alternator or vehicle wiring system. If you see this light, get your car checked out as soon as possible.

Anti-lock brake system

The anti-lock brake system light is a circle with brackets around it and the letters “ABS” in the center. This light flags a problem with your car’s braking system. Brakes stop your vehicle. To avoid brake-related injury, death or an accident, get your car to a mechanic right away if the ABS light comes on.

Brake light warning

The brake light warning light resembles the ABS light, except that it has a light bulb with an “X” over it in the circle instead of “ABS.” It means one or more of your brake lights are out. Police can ticket you for a brake light malfunction. More importantly, if drivers behind you can’t tell you’re stopping because the brake lights are out, it could cause a serious accident.

Headlight malfunction

The headlight malfunction light looks like a light bulb with beams of light around it and an exclamation point in the center. Headlights help you see while driving at night and help other drivers see you. If this light comes on, your headlight could be out, so take your car in as soon as possible for headlamp repair or replacement.

Automatic transmission system warning

The automatic transmission warning light looks like a mechanical gear with an exclamation point in the middle of it. According to Your Mechanic, this light means there’s a problem with the car’s transmission, including fluid level, temperature or pressure. Engines and transmissions are two of the most expensive vehicle systems to repair or replace. If this light is illuminated, get your car diagnosed and repaired right away.

Engine oil level

Your vehicle won’t run without the engine, and the engine can’t function without oil. The engine oil level light looks like an oil can with a drop of oil coming out. Per Firestone, this light means the engine oil is low, there might be a leak or the car is overdue for maintenance. Any of these issues can trigger much more significant problems, including engine failure. Don’t ever ignore this light.

Tire pressure monitoring system

Most new cars and trucks have a tire pressure monitoring light that displays as a vehicle with four tire pressures around it. Or, it could look like a deflated tire with an exclamation point in the center. Tire pressure changes seasonally. If one or more pressures are low, add air as soon as possible to prevent a flat.

Overall, dashboard warning lights identify a large variety of vehicle issues. If you see any of these 10 typical warning lights display, don’t delay in getting your car in for service.

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