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Dashboard warning lights you can't ignore

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Updated 11 Oct 2019Lindsay Saunders
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You’re cruising down the motorway, minding your own, the cruise control set to the speed limit and not a k more when a symbol on the dash illuminates.

It’s not the handbrake warning light, it’s not the glow plug light for your diesel engine, it’s . . . well . . . what is it?

While more and more vehicles are sporting multi-function displays more akin to an iPad than a dashboard, there’s still plenty of lights – usually in red or orange, which are rarely happy colours – to warn you when something’s not going to plan.

Some of these you might be able to ignore for a while and wait to get things checked at the next service, some mean you should probably pull the car over and stop. Like now.

Here are five of the warning lights we reckon matter most.

LOW ENGINE OIL PRESSURE

Usually shaped like an oil can that your grandfather used to lube the Morris, complete with a drip from the spout, this warning light is letting you know the engine’s life blood may need a transfusion, top up or even the filter or pump are having a wobbly.

Best course of action? Pull over ASAP and as safely as possible because an oil issue can easily lead to an engine issue.

And when I say issue, I mean a seized engine. Yikes.

The best bet is to get help. It may be that the oil level is low and needs a top up.

But if it’s an oil pump fail, for example, you will be justifiably smug with the decision to stop and shut down.

CHARGING SYSTEM

This light looks like a battery, usually with the positive and negative symbols, and indicates, unsurprisingly, a battery issue.

It could, however, also mean a charging issue (an alternator problem the likely cause) so if you can, drive that vehicle straight to your dealer or mechanic.

Don’t delay – no stopping for a mocha latte frappuccino – because a charging issue could stop your car dead in its tracks, leaving you stranded. Rarely a fun time.

ENGINE COOLANT TEMPERATURE

No, the thermometer-shaped light doesn’t mean you car’s got the ‘flu, but it does mean it’s running a temperature.

It lights up when the engine is exceeding its recommended maximum temperature, which will lead to overheating, leading to nasty things and the spending of many dollars.

This is another light that means you need to get off the road and shut down the engine pronto.

Opening the bonnet can help cool things off but don’t do it without a lot of care – in fact, play it safe and wait a spell if you must insert your hand under the bonnet to release the catch, especially if you can see steam.

CHECK ENGINE

With a symbol representing your engine, this little gem means there’s something not good happening and you should have the engine looked at right now.

Sometimes this one will come on and then go off again, bringing a sense of relief.

Don’t be fooled. The safest thing to do is to have an expert check things out.

Of course, if it comes on and stays on, once again, get off the road and turn off the engine without delay.

TYRE PRESSURE

More and more common, this one looks like the cross section of a tyre and is letting you know the pressure in one or more of your car’s tyres is outside the recommended level.

Get to a servo ASAP, let the tyres cool down and check the pressures on all tyres, adjusting as necessary.

For some systems, if the warning light flashes then stays lit, there’s a fault with the system, so get it to the mechanic to be sorted.

There’s no point risking things – if a light comes on your dash, you need to take action and the sooner the better.

AutoGuru can match you with the experts to ensure you’re not off the road for long.

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Written ByLindsay Saunders

Lindsay Saunders has been writing, editing and producing words and photos for more than three decades, starting back when he drove a 1971 VW Type 3 fastback.

Now he’s got a Hyundai I30 diesel, a 1999 LWB Hi-Ace (camper project) and wishes his wife’s EJ Holden station wagon was actually his.