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Check engine light

Why Is My Check Engine Light On?

Deb Hipp

Maybe you once sang along with Meatloaf’s “Paradise by the Dashboard Lights” song without considering what those lights meant. Of course, now you know that your vehicle’s dashboard warning lights serve an important function that goes well beyond just a backdrop for nighttime auto romance.

It may seem daunting to decode all those symbols and colors alerting you to potential safety hazards, mechanical issues or even minor things that need attention. Fortunately, you don’t have to be baffled by dashboard warning lights.

This guide to seven important dashboard lights can give you a jump start on the road to safer driving and help you stay on top of vehicle maintenance and repairs.

What Do Dashboard Alert Colors Mean?

Warning symbols differ among makes and models, but dashboard lights typically appear in three or four different colors, each signaling the level of urgency.

  • Green or blue lights notify that certain features of your car — cruise control or headlights, for example — are active and working properly.
  • Yellow or amber lights often signal a less urgent potential safety issue or hazard, such as a prompt to engage traction control on icy roads or air up tires.
  • Red warning lights can indicate a serious problem with important auto components such as the engine or transmission.

Dashboard Warning Lights Guide

While dashboard lights vary depending on the type of car or truck, below are seven warning lights that should catch your attention.

1. Check Engine

When the check engine light appears and stays on, the warning can signal a serious problem with your car’s engine. But the warning light can also come on due to minor issues such as a loose wire or gas cap not being fully closed.

What to do: Don’t ignore your vehicle’s check engine light and never continue driving when this light comes on if it’s accompanied by worrisome noises or other obvious problems. Even if your car displays no other symptoms of an engine issue, visit your mechanic for a full diagnostic test to get to the source of the problem.

2. Engine Coolant

This red warning symbol often appears when your car’s engine overheats due to running out of engine coolant (antifreeze). The engine temperature light may also indicate other serious issues that can create problems in need of repairs.

What to do: Don’t ignore this important warning, or your vehicle’s engine could sustain major damage. Pull over, and let the car cool down for 15 minutes without popping the hood to avoid steam burns and injuries. Call roadside assistance for a coolant top-off or a tow to your auto mechanic to check out the problem.

3. Oil Pressure

That dripping oil can icon might simply let you know that you need to top off your engine’s oil supply. But this warning can also indicate serious issues, including an engine leak or a broken piston ring or oil pump. Ignoring this dashboard warning and continuing to drive without checking it out can lead to significant repair bills.

What to do: Check your oil with the engine dipstick, adding more if necessary. If topping off the oil doesn’t shut off the warning light, take your vehicle to a mechanic for a checkup.

4. Battery Alert

The battery warning light appears when there is an issue with your vehicle’s charging system, including the battery itself or other electrical components such as wiring or the alternator. Ignoring this light could leave you stranded with a car that won’t start.

What to do: Most auto parts stores will check your car’s battery for free and replace a drained battery when you purchase a new one. For a full battery and electrical system check, make an appointment with your mechanic to rule out other electrical issues.

5. Tire Pressure Monitor

This amber, partial circle with tire tread at the bottom and an exclamation point inside lets you know when tire pressure is low or overinflated, which can affect driving safety and fuel consumption. The gauge could also display each tire’s air pressure.

What to do: Pull into a service station to check the pressure of each tire. Refill air in the affected tires to the recommended pressure level displayed in your owner’s manual or listed on your driver’s side door.

6. Brake System

The brake system warning light can appear if you try to pull out while the parking brake is still engaged. But the alert can also signal serious brake problems that may need to be repaired or replaced or an issue with the vehicle’s anti-lock braking system.

What to do: Disengage the parking brake if that’s the reason the light is on. If the light continues to glow, visit a mechanic for a thorough brake inspection.

7. Reduced Engine Power

This warning light alerts you to problems with air or fuel flow to the engine. The reasons could be as simple as an air filter that needs replacing. But the light can also indicate low oil pressure, leaks in hoses or engine performance issues in need of repair.

What to do: Take your vehicle to a mechanic for a diagnostic test to locate causes.

Review Your Owner’s Manual

This list covers some of the most important dashboard lights and notifications. However, there are many additional alerts to pay attention to, including low fuel, door ajar, low windshield washer, power steering, airbags and more.

Take a few minutes to look up your car’s dashboard lights and manufacturer recommendations in the vehicle’s owner’s manual. That way, you’ll know how to gauge warnings and notifications and when to visit a mechanic.

Have you had a check engine light scare or another dashboard light alert that prompted you to take action? If so, share your story and suggestions with other readers in the comments.

53 Responses to "Why Is My Check Engine Light On?"
    • George Wochnick | July 24, 2022 at 2:44 pm

      Everything as good as needed!

    • Nancy J Field | July 19, 2022 at 2:23 pm

      If the newer cars (mine is a 2017 Toyota Avalon) are not driven frequently, the battery dies and car won’t start. Last week, I didn’t drive my car for a week and had to jump start the battery. Battery light did not go on. According to a Toyota dealer, the car has to be driven to keep battery charged. You can’t just start
      The car. Engine light went off after the car was driven enough to fully charge the battery.

    • William T Childs | July 14, 2022 at 5:12 pm

      My car, less than 2 yrs old, would not start. The dashboard warning for brakes was on, and then other warnings started going on and off, except for the battery alert which was off. I called the dealership, which advised it was probably a battery problem, notwithstanding the alert being off. They replaced the battery, which fixed everything.

    • Flora Mayer | July 13, 2022 at 11:51 pm

      The tire warning light came on and wouldn’t go off, even after I had the tires aired up. I had it checked out it wasn’t the tires ,it was the ty rods that needed to be replaced.

    • Richard Gable | July 13, 2022 at 7:58 pm

      gota light have it checked. be smart.

    • Charlotte | July 13, 2022 at 1:36 pm

      Was told by mechanic as long as the engine light is not flashing, not to worry.
      Had to replace the sensor and was pricey. was usually the gas cap had not clicked when I tightened it.
      Also, when they rotate the tires, the sensor must go with the tire as when front tire was low on driver’s side and was rotated to rear, then the rear tire came up low pressure.

    • Debra Cobb | July 13, 2022 at 11:10 am

      What is it when your skid light, tire pressure light, check engine light stays on. Even after everything checks out okay. Telling me it’s the sensor

    • Thomas ILL | July 12, 2022 at 1:01 pm

      Thanks!!

    • Lorie Jones | July 11, 2022 at 9:47 pm

      My “Change Oil Soon” light is on but there have only been about 150 miles put on the car since the oil was last changed. I checked the stick and it is not dirty and has sufficient oil. Why would this light keep coming on?

    • Zakir Majid | July 11, 2022 at 12:39 pm

      Very useful information.Thanks

    • B Marty Martin | July 11, 2022 at 10:52 am

      great advice and very easy to understand. Thanks

    • EDDIE MACK DAVIS JR | July 10, 2022 at 9:51 pm

      thanks for the important info.

    • Mark Dickerson | July 10, 2022 at 9:03 pm

      Thank you very much for some helpful reminders.

    • Melon P. Baxter | July 10, 2022 at 9:00 pm

      Helpful information.

    • Jeannette Raccomandato | July 10, 2022 at 3:46 pm

      What problem arises when the PSP-BAS indicator light comes on ?

      • Extra Mile Staff | July 11, 2022 at 7:24 am

        Hi Jeannette – For additional warning lights, we recommend you use your vehicle’s owner’s manual to look up dashboard alerts and manufacturer recommendations for your specific car.

    • Owen Gilbert | July 10, 2022 at 3:10 pm

      Thanks!

    • mikewelsh | July 10, 2022 at 10:25 am

      I have a 2010 odsessey and the tpms light is constantly displayed. Dealer wants a fortune to fix sensor. Any suggestions??

    • matt | July 10, 2022 at 10:23 am

      Great Advice, thanks

    • Eddie | July 10, 2022 at 7:40 am

      Thanks you

    • Edward | July 10, 2022 at 6:33 am

      I had an issue with my 2012 Buick Lacrosse Supreme. A leaky water pump occurred, causing vehicle to run critically low on coolant. There was NO WARNING LIGHT to notify me of this issue. Had I noticed the heat gauge, engine would have locked up… calling for a new engine.

    • Kristi Ann Jorgensen | July 9, 2022 at 9:21 pm

      Thanks so much for sharing these tips!!

    • Dwelyn Evans | July 9, 2022 at 5:59 pm

      Check engine light came on it was my gas cap. It did it again it was a o2 sencer.

    • Al H Schrader | July 9, 2022 at 5:26 pm

      The Hartford such an amazing company. Thank you for keeping my insurance premiums low.

    • Paula Lambert | July 9, 2022 at 3:58 pm

      This just happened to me yesterday. Check engine light. I have. 2002 Ford Focus stick shift, 75000 miles and regular maintenance done I bought it new. 21 years old. It is amber light and a steady light. I have checked gas cap and it is like always. I am getting it in on Thursday and won’t drive it till I take it in. It is running great, smooth and zippy! I have put money into this car but not abnormal for age. Feb shocks and struts and it went through diagnostic test then. So afraid it is going to be super expensive.

    • Texas | July 9, 2022 at 3:21 pm

      Thanks for the reminders

    • Renee Perry Parsons | July 9, 2022 at 2:12 pm

      Thank you.

    • Richard Doyle | July 9, 2022 at 1:51 pm

      Thanks

    • Susan hansen | July 9, 2022 at 1:21 pm

      Excellent information. Thank you!

    • DEANNA ROTH | July 9, 2022 at 1:13 pm

      Thank you I appreciate this email!

    • steve moses | July 9, 2022 at 12:42 pm

      My engine light is on , but I always check my car. Mechanic said that it will stay on.

    • Peter Alan Skroback | July 9, 2022 at 12:39 pm

      You will be better off and pay less ($0.00) if you go to your local auto parts dealer; most will check for the code and tell you what it means. They will also advise you whether or not you need to see a mechanic.

    • Barbara Wagner | July 9, 2022 at 12:24 pm

      My dash shows gas cap and lock warning in gold and beeping with lights staying on when key turned off. Lights are sentry lights and normal. I have replaced the gas cap and I’ve had Auto Zone use a device to clear the gas cap light but still it stays on and beeps. It stays off while I’m driving. Only on when I turn off the key. (07 Cadillac CTX)

    • Joyce Rader | July 9, 2022 at 12:23 pm

      These are good reminders for any driver. However, you may want to include ways to find a copy of that owner’s manual if there is none with the vehicle. Buying a used vehicle often comes with the risk of not having the manual. Some car manuals can be found and downloaded online. Even the ‘cheat sheet’ telling you what the warning lights are and what they mean can be found for some models. Other vehicles require you to find and buy the owner’s manual. Be aware you may need some additional info about the vehicle to find the correct manual other than year, make, and model. Price for manuals will vary based on year, condition of the manual, and source providing that manual.

      • Extra Mile Staff | July 11, 2022 at 7:50 am

        This is a great tip, Joyce. Thanks for sharing!

    • steve | July 9, 2022 at 12:04 pm

      i have a 12 year old car that has tire sensors. the batteries in the sensors are probably good for 6 years or so. when i bought the car it was used and 10 years ol and i started to get the tire light on while driving around i brought the car to a tire shop several time and was told the tire pressure was fine and that probably what is happening is the battery are low in one or more of the tires and it all the tires would need to be opened in order to replace the sensors with new ones, about 20 bucks per tire. i am 75 years old and the tires were all new when i purchased the car.. i dont think i will live long enough to replace those sensors, a few thoughts

    • Martin Gutzmer | July 9, 2022 at 11:33 am

      The “half circle “ with a tire tread at the bottom is actually a cross section of a tire.

    • Thomas Bruner | July 9, 2022 at 11:28 am

      Yep, recently got a tire pressure alert, and found a rear tire with very low pressure. Went to the shop and needed all four tires replaced!

    • Jeanne Kirkwood | July 9, 2022 at 11:10 am

      The first time the tire pressure light came on, it was announced by a loud noise! I was about to go home after an evening meeting at about 10:00 PM. The icon made no sense to me and I spent about 10 minutes ripping through the Manual to find the issue. When I found “tire pressure”, I got out of the car and walked around looking at all the tires – none looked flat. I went home and the next day I went to a service gas station (few and far between these days) and an attendant found a couple of tires a couple of pounds low. I have since learned from my regular mechanic that when a car sits out in cool temperatures, it can cause this gauge to activate. I live in San Francisco and my car is always garaged. But if it sits out for a few hours and the evening temperature falls, I can be sure this icon will appear. I have bought a very good tire pressure gauge and will some day learn how to add air!

    • Leticia Hill | July 9, 2022 at 11:04 am

      I appreciate this information thanks

    • Barbara Moore | July 9, 2022 at 10:52 am

      Thanks for the reminders!

      • Dorothy long | July 13, 2022 at 6:47 am

        I have a 2016 chelvelot impla unlimited i brought this march 2022 my engine light keep coming on it read service traction control, slow engine, I had a fuel pressure sensor put on still engine it say same thing, so I took it back and was told code can cost, he say to drive it and see if it will reading come back, I am a lady I so afraid to drive my or enjoy dont want to break down i don’t know what to do

    • Robert | July 9, 2022 at 10:46 am

      My 2000 Avalon check engine light has been on for the last 15 to 16 years- no problems. Car runs great!

    • Mark A. Bair | July 9, 2022 at 10:14 am

      Great advice.

    • Kathleen Vay | July 9, 2022 at 9:51 am

      I do need my tires checked for air n balance Thank You o

    • Cathy | July 9, 2022 at 9:27 am

      This will be my go to information from now on.

    • fausto arnieri | July 7, 2022 at 4:44 pm

      Have it checked as soon as possible

      • Joyce Rader | July 9, 2022 at 12:33 pm

        Call around and see what the various mechanics charge to ‘check the codes’. That fee alone is usually higher with the dealer. Some code readers can be purchased for less than the cost of the diagnostic fee and will help many DIYs. Not all code readers will identify all possible issues and further diagnostic may be required by a specialized mechanic. For minor codes these meters often have a reset button that may buy you some time until you can get the appointment for repair. Just remember the code needs to be present for the mechanic to confirm what is wrong.

    • Eva Smith | July 7, 2022 at 2:37 pm

      It was a reminder of things I knew but it refreshed my memory.

    • PATRICIA THOMAS | May 19, 2022 at 3:30 pm

      ..Last car I had went to 333,000 miles–check engine light stayed on. They could never find anything. It was a Maxima. This car Sonata 2010 light stays on–cannot find anything wrong.

    • orville | May 7, 2022 at 12:47 pm

      have two older toyota’s ,2000&2003 lite came on them had them checked.spendy ! was exhaust sensor .wanted a lot to remedy . lights been on 15 and 12 years still going strong.

      • Ronelle | May 12, 2022 at 2:16 pm

        @Orville – I am not surprised. Toyotas are known for their long life and are awesome cars.

      • Faison | July 9, 2022 at 3:24 pm

        I have a 2004 Toyota Matrix. Whenever the check engine light comes on, I take it to the dealer and it is always something that needs to be done which helps with preventative maintenance. This helps to keep me rolling down the road!!! (LOL)

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