They blink at you every time you turn the key on, but do you really pay attention to those warning lights on your dashboard? Surrounding the gauge cluster, these tiny lights all have an extremely important purpose. Do you know what your dash lights mean?

Often called “dummy” lights, the symbols on your dashboard are associated with very specific commands. Most of the time you won’t see a whole lot of the lights your car has installed, which is a good thing, but sometimes a light will come on and you might not be sure what it means. Worse, you might even ignore the light and just hope it goes away.

That is one of the worst things you can do.

What Does Each Light Mean?

The next time you’ve got a free moment, go out to your car and turn the key only until all the lights on your dashboard come on. Most of them will blink for a few seconds before turning off, but make note of the ones that stay on after that. Those are your “dummy” lights, that will continue to stay on when the key is turned to that particular position. These lights might include the airbag, gas, oil temp, check engine, and battery symbols.

For a detailed explanation of what your specific car’s symbols mean, check out the owner’s manual. Each manufacturer places the symbols in a slightly different spot, but most of them mean similar things. With this in mind, let’s take a look at the symbols you won’t need to fret over too much. Then, we’ll talk about the symbols you’ll want to act upon as soon as you can.

Maintenance and Reminder Lights

The lights we’ll discuss in this section are like a supplies order. When you run out of milk or bread, you remind yourself to write that item on the shopping list to get the next time you’re at the store. The following lights are not super crucial to address right away, but they’re something you should handle the next time you’ve got a few spare moments.

In no particular order, here are the dashboard lights that don’t require immediate action.

Seatbelt Indicator

This is a common light, especially on newer cars that require the passenger to be buckled up, as well as the driver. Some vehicles will play a tone until the seatbelts are fastened, and once that belt clicks, the light — and tone — on your dash should go away.

If you’re having trouble with this light staying on, there might be a problem with the connection. See a dealer if this is the case.

Door Ajar

These symbols look like aerial views of your car, with the corresponding open door jutting out from the car’s 2-D body to indicate which door is not shut completely. Drivers should close all doors securely before putting the vehicle into gear and beginning their journey.

Cruise Control

If your vehicle is so equipped, the cruise control feature will indicate it is engaged by lighting up the cruise symbol on the dashboard. The cruise control button can often be pushed at any time, so just seeing the indicator lit up does not mean cruise is active. Check your owner’s manual for specific and proper use of the cruise control feature on your car.

Fog Lamps and Hi-Beams

Both extra sets of lights that illuminate your path, fog lights and hi-beams are a great way to see in the dark. These features have indicator lights to show they are in use, much like the cruise control feature.

Windshield Fluid

This light just means you have low windshield washer fluid. Having a small amount of windshield washer fluid isn’t necessarily going to keep you off the road, but it is crucial to driving in certain conditions. It is a good idea to keep an extra bottle of washer fluid in your car at all times in case you run out but seeing a low windshield washer fluid indicator light is not something that requires pulling over immediately.

Glow Plug Indicator

Featured on diesel-powered vehicles, glow plugs require a few minutes to heat up before they can comfortably power the engine. Turn your key almost entirely to the starting position, and allow the dummy lights to come on. The glow plug indicator will stay on for a few seconds, perhaps up to a minute, and then it should disappear. This means it is optimal to begin the engine.

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Lights to Pay Attention To

Now that we’ve discussed the lights you probably shouldn’t worry too much about, let’s focus on those that should be given full and undivided attention.

Gas Tank

Many new drivers have come to know this symbol through hardship, when they can’t make it to their destination because they ran out of gas. When you see that your tank is getting low, plan to stop at the next gas station you see. Most manuals will tell you how long you can go on the last fumes in the tank, but it’s never good to push your car to the starving point.


This light means your battery is not charging and your car’s engine will soon not have power. Pull over as soon as you can and if you can find a nearby auto parts store, invest in a new battery.


Some cars allow the driver to turn off passenger airbags, but owners should know that when these lights are on, the airbags in question will not deploy. As with all safety features, airbags should always be in operating order to prevent injury in the event of an accident.

Tire Pressure

Your vehicle’s Tire Pressure Monitoring System (TPMS), if so equipped, will alert you to the air levels in each of your four tires. While the pressure in each tire will fluctuate with the air temperature outside, you should keep your tires inflated near the recommended specifications.

Having a low tire pressure can mean a couple different things. From a bad valve stem to a leak, the loss of pressure can mean you ran over a nail, or that there’s something wrong with your tire that impairs its ability to function safely and properly.

If your TPMS indicator light turns on, seek out the nearest tire shop to diagnose the issue.

Change Engine Oil/Oil Pressure

These indicators are crucial to pay attention to, because the oil in your car’s engine is what keeps the insides from tearing each other apart. Think of the fluid in your joints that allows them to move with ease. If that fluid was gone, your bones would be grating on one another and that’s not pleasant. The same goes for your engine.

To keep on top of your engine oil, get it changed frequently per the manufacturer’s recommendations and check the level every time you get gas and/or on a weekly basis.

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Consulting your Mechanic and Self-Diagnosis

There you have it! These are some of the most common lights you’ll see on your dashboard.

If you’ve got any further questions, contact your local mechanic and discuss your concerns with them. While mechanics can’t usually diagnose a problem without seeing and working on your car, they should be able to offer general advice on next steps and the urgency of your situation.

There are also those out there who prefer to do it themselves, and purchase a code scanner to read codes off their car themselves. These are a great tool if you understand how your car works and/or are able to bring those codes to a mechanic’s shop and consult them. Working on your own vehicle may void some warranties, so be sure you’re comfortable with the consequences in either situation.

Safe travels!

Rebecca Henderson has a Master's in German and a Bachelor's in Creative Writing. She alternates her time between writing and working on a variety of motorized projects. Most recently, she and her boyfriend have been building a custom drift trike. Rebecca believes that language, love, and a life worth living are only the first ingredients to happiness.