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Knowing Your Motor Vehicle Dashboard Lights Could Save You a Late Night Tow

Updated on October 20, 2016
clivewilliams profile image

I have been driving for over 20 Years, have owned three cars, and have plenty experience with servicing my own vehicle.

The Dashboard

The Motor Vehicle dashboard plays an extremely important role in the use of your motor vehicle. The dashboard consist of several light indications as well as different gauges that assist you in your every day driving. Knowing the indications and what they mean is extremely important, a simple thing like ignoring or being ignorant to dashboard indications can take you from a fifty (U$50) dollar repair to thousands of dollars in repairs. Even worse, being ignorant to these lights can lead to accidents, and we know that some accidents can some times lead to loss of lives. The quicker you see a fault, the quicker it is resolved, the better performance you will get from your vehicle.

Once you put the key in the ignition and turn on the ignition, all dashboards light should light up, this is actually a dashboard bulb test, if nothing illuminates, it would be a good time to check your dashboard bulb or fuse. Once all indications have illuminated, then they should deluminate, if you notice any indications that still remain lit up, you will then need to diagnose or call a certified mechanic.


The Speedometer is a very important dashboard indicator, it is one of the indications that is quite well known and importance is scaled down. The Speedometer is a regulator that helps us to know our speeds while driving. There are some persons however who seem to believe that this piece of equipment is a circus hammer and bell, they seem to want to always reach the highest number on this equipment. Even though Speedometers are not that expensive to replace or repair if they have gone bad, but it can be very expensive not to have it replaced or fixed, traveling at high speeds in slow speed limit areas will lead to expensive tickets.

How to tell if your Speedometer is failing

  1. You are driving and the speedometer needle fluctuates.
  2. The needle does not move from a specific speed even though you know you are going faster or slower.
  3. The needle simply remains at "0 kph/mph" during driving.

If this occurs, get it fixed as soon as possible.

Tachometer - Revs Per Minute (RPM) Gauge

Not many people know what this gauge means, they just know that when they step on the gas, this gauge, like its brother the Speedometer goes up. The Tachometer or more affectionately known as the RPM gauge is used to measure the rotation of the engine crankshaft. The function of a crankshaft in an engine is to transform the linear motion inside the pistons into rotational motion, which is transmitted to the wheels. The crankshaft has crankpins and crank throws that aid in the conversion of the reciprocating motion into a rotational force. Excessive gas presses and low revs indicates a problem with your crankshaft system and should definitely be checked out immediately.

Temperature Gauge

It is of the utmost importance that your car engine performs under the correct temperature. The engine in use generates heat over 100oC and needs to cool down once it reaches maximum temperature. The Engine uses coolants liquid to pass through it and remove the excess heat, it also uses fans which switch on to cool the engine when maximum temperature is reached. The temperature gauge is a simple gauge which houses a thermostat connected to the engine that indicates the temperature of the engine or it just may show hot or cold. With normal engine operation, the needle on the temperature gauge should remain a little below the half mark as shown in the image above. It is highly important that your temperature gauge is monitored as engine running at high temperature for long periods of time will eventually end up being damaged. This will end up costing thousands to buy and replace or repair the engine.

How to tell if your temperature gauge has gone belly up

  1. The temperature needle fluctuates.
  2. the needle remains at 0 driving for long periods in heat

Fuel Indicator

The Fuel indicator

You can't get it any simpler than this. the fuel indicator simply tells us how much tank load of gas you actually have. The fuel indicator does not tel us precisely how much gas is in your car, that is left for you to decide, so if your tank can load 50 gallons and your needle is at half, you know that you now have 25 gallons left. Just know your tank size. It can be very bad if you have a bad fuel indicator, you may not know that you are running out of gas until its too late and you end up stranded on some "Hills have eyes" desolated location. Pay attention to your Gas indicator.

Oil Warning Light

if you turn on your vehicle and and a red oil can appears or the word "oil" comes on, shut off the vehicle and check your engine oil level. The oil light usually means that the engine oil pressure is low and therefore unable to lubricate itself. If this vehicle is driven for periods without checking or refilling oil level, this will lead to an expensive engine repair.

If the oil light comes on while driving, you should pull over as soon as it's safe and turn the engine off. using a dipstick to check if the oil is low, if it is in fact low, you need to top up with oil. Also have your mechanic check for leaks.

Brake Light Indicator

The brake light indicator illuminates and stays illuminated under two conditions.

  • Your Parking brake is still engaged.

If the vehicle is not in motion, release the parking brake and look at the brake light, if the vehicle is in motion, stop at the safest point and check that the parking brake was properly disengaged.

  • Low brake pressure.

If after checking your parking brake and it is ok but the brake light is still illuminated, it may be a symbol that the fluid in your brake system is low. You may need to pour in some brake fluid. Turn of the engine and locate the brake fluid cylinder and reservoir. Open the reservoir and mark the full indicator line. If the reservoir is low, pour in the correct brake fluid that is recommended by the manufacture in the reservoir until it reaches the maximum fluid line.

Vehicle unable to stop

Even though it is point blank clear what will happen if you have little or no brake fluid in your lines. Driving without having enough or no brake fluid would mean that you are unable to apply your brake system properly, you will not be able to stop the vehicle in time or just unable to stop at all.

Check Engine - Yellow

Check Engine Light - Red

The Check engine yellow light can mean a variety of things, much not know by the common automobile owner. It could also be an indication that your engine is due servicing, in which an oil change, oil filter change and spark plugs would be done. Normally when the engine light is lit, it generates an error code which is stored for diagnostic purposes by qualified technicians. But there are simple trouble shooting steps which can be completed to test if the symptoms are minor.

If the check engine light comes on:

Check your dashboard gauges and lights for indications of low oil pressure or overheating. These conditions mean you should pull over and shut off the engine as soon as you can find a safe place to do so.

Try tightening your gas cap.
This often solves the problem. Keep in mind that it may take several trips before the light resets. Some vehicles have a separate indicator that warns of a loose gas cap before the condition sets off the check engine light.

Reduce speed and load.
If the check engine light is blinking or you notice any serious performance problems, such as a loss of power, reduce your speed and try to reduce the load on the engine. For example, it would be a good idea to stop towing a trailer. Have the car checked as soon as possible to prevent expensive damage.

If the check engine light is red. STOP! get it tow out/in for diagnostics.

Car battery Indicator

Your car is equipped with a 12 volt battery which powers all the electrical devices in your car. The battery indicator light on the dashboard signals us that there is a problem with the battery charging system. If you start the car and the battery indicator light remains on, it could mean that:

  1. Your your alternator belt has snapped
  2. Your Alternator has gone bad
  3. Your battery cable may be loose

When you start your car, start power is taken from the battery which allows the engine to fire up, once the engine is operational, so is the alternator. The alternator then takes control of all the electrical items in your car, from power windows to car audio. Once the alternator keeps running, your battery (once in good standing) keeps charging, and is no longer needed until you switch off the vehicle and need to switch it on again.

If you have a battery light illuminated on you dashboard, there is a simple test which will tell you if your alternator is bad.

  1. Start the car
  2. Remove any of the battery terminals while the car is still switched on.

if the engine still runs, the alternator is good, if the car goes dead, you need to replace the alternator.

Door open Indicator Light

If for some reason you are in the process of driving your car and you see the above indicator light on your dashboard, you simply need to check all the car doors are properly closed. If all the door are closed, it could mean that the sensor is jammed. This is a simple fix, have your local mechanic look at it.

Anti-Lock Brake System Light (ABS)

The Anti-Lock Brake System also known as ABS light comes on when there is a fault in the ABS system. The ABS is an automobile safety system that allows the wheels on a motor vehicle to maintain tractive contact with the road surface while braking, preventing the wheels from locking up (ceasing rotation) and avoiding uncontrolled skidding. When you see the ABS lights on, it will most likey be reset by the car computer system until it is repaired. If you notice the lights on and off, bring in the car to have a certified mechanic check it out, your brake system is as important as fuel system.

Supplemental Restrain System (SRS)

The Supplemental Restrain System (SRS) light, indicated that there is a problem with your airbag system. This light usually means that you airbags are failing your car's self-test. The air bags may also be expired and need replacing, or their deploy mechanism is faulty. Bring in the vehicle to a certified mechanic and have it checked out.

I have never seen a person parked or just driving regularly and the air bag system malfunctions and activates, but if i had a SRS light indicator, that would be the first thought that pops into my head and that would leave me rushing to the mechanic.

Seat Belt Lights

This is the seat belt indicator lights which tells us that we are driving and putting our self or our passenger in danger. Once the seat senses a certain weight and position on the car seat, the light then triggers telling us that there is a passenger that needs to be buckled in. If the person is buckled in and the light indicator is still illuminated, the sensor may be jammed. Have that looked at by a certified mechanic.

Automatic Gear Lights

I have chosen to include these automatic gear lights because it as an indication on the dashboard as well as in some cases, the gear lever. The letters on the dashboard have quite simple and logical meanings, see the list below:

  • D. The vehicle is engaged in the Drive gear which is a automatic up or downshift operation
  • N. The vehicle is neutralized and not in any gear, mostly used for repair testing and towing purposes.
  • P. The vehicle gear system is locked and unengaged, the vehicle is unable to move.
  • R. The reverse gear.
  • L/2. These are actually low gears in the car and limits the vehicle accelerating power. useful if you are going downhill on wet or traveling on icy surfaces. The 2 gear is also great for climbing hills

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    • clivewilliams profile imageAUTHOR

      Clive Williams 

      2 years ago from Jamaica

      No, a faulty oil sensor should not do that. When this sensor goes bad, it will start to give inaccurate readings. such as:

      1. The Oil Pressure Light blinks constantly

      2. Oil pressure light is lit

      It should not trigger a shut down in older model cars.

    • profile image


      2 years ago


      On a 1999 Ford Laser (or a Mazda 323) will the oil pressure sensor prevent ignition to the motor?

      While driving at 100km on a country road (approx 3000 RPM) the car lost power and then the "oil light" appeared; the car would not restart.

      The car was recently serviced about 400km ago with oil and filter (oil is in the engine) and as a seperate issue both coils/leads replaced.

      When I checked the dipstick there is oil in the sump. I then opened the oil cap and there appears to be oil on the cams etc.

      Will a faulty oil sensor cut the electrical circuit from the coils? There seems to be a 'charge' to the coil but nothing after the coil.

      Thank you for your assistance with this matter.

      Sent from my iPad


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