Updated: 2/28/2018

Drivers hold their breath when they first turn their car on. They watch and wait as a dozen different symbols light up on their dashboard, hoping that all of them will go dark again once the engine turns over. Plenty of people don’t know what half of those symbols actually mean, and you’re not alone if you’re one of them.

As a responsible car owner, it’s good to be prepared for the day one of those lights stays on or comes on while you’re driving. So what do your dashboard icons mean?

We’re going to have some fun below as we break down what each of the most common dashboard icons mean compared to what they look like they mean.

What Does This Dashboard Icon Light Mean?

dash-lights-icons-temp

What It Looks Like: Half of a ladder rising out of a sea of lava, and the ladder is also made of lava.

What You Think It Means: There is no escape from the lava.

What It Actually Means: Your engine is too hot. You may need to have your coolant levels checked, or there could be something wrong with the radiator.

dash-lights-icons-charger

What It Looks Like: A robot winking at you.

What You Think It Means: The Singularity is here, and they come in peace.

What It Actually Means: There’s a problem with your battery or, if it’s a hybrid vehicle, your car’s charging system.

dash-lights-icons-brake-warning

What It Looks Like: A symbol of profound urgency.

What You Think It Means: Your car has a fantastic idea that will get you out of this pickle.

What It Actually Means: There’s something up with your brakes. Either your parking brake is on, your brake fluid is low, or you need to have your Anti-lock Braking System checked out.

dash-lights-icons-oil

What It Looks Like: An angry antique tea pot.

What You Think It Means: “Don’t even think about touching me because you’re definitely not getting 3 wishes.”

What It Actually Means: Either your engine oil level is running dangerously low or the oil pressure is dangerously high. At minimum, it’s time for an oil change.

dash-lights-icons-traction

What It Looks Like: A curling rock thrown on a shuffle board.

What You Think It Means: “Here comes the Hammer!”

What It Actually Means: Traction Control is active, which probably means the road is slippery. Drive carefully.

dash-lights-icons-airbag

What It Looks Like: Someone has surprised you with a beach ball.

What You Think It Means: You need to work on your hand-eye coordination. Like, how do you not catch a beach ball?

What It Actually Means: Something is wrong with your airbags or airbag system. You’ll need to have your car checked out to get this light turned off.

dash-lights-icons-abs

What It Looks Like: A reminder to do more sit-ups.

What You Think It Means: “I guess I’ve been slacking on my core strength training…”

What It Actually Means: You need to have your brakes looked at, specifically your Anti-lock Braking System.

dash-lights-icons-security

What It Looks Like: Somebody replaced your back wheel with a key.

What You Think It Means: “Car keys don’t even look like that anymore.”

What It Actually Means: Something is wrong with the security system, or you might be using the wrong key to start your car.

dash-lights-icons-check-engine

What It Looks Like: A car engine (sort of).

What You Think It Means: “My car is going to explode.”

What It Actually Means: Most often, the check engine light comes on when something is wrong with your car’s emissions system. Either there’s a problem with your exhaust, your catalytic converter, or the air filtration system. There’s a chance that you might just need to tighten your gas cap. Regardless, if the light stays on for longer than a few days, you should bring your car in for service.

Hopefully this guide helps you decode some of the more mysterious icons on your dashboard. If you’re still in doubt, here are a few rules of thumb:

  • If the light is YELLOW, keep an eye on it, but don’t panic.
  • If the light is RED, you should take immediate note and address the issue as soon as possible.
  • If the light is FLASHING, call a dealership or service station before you drive any further.
  • If it is GREEN or BLUE, that system is active. Nothing is wrong.

Remember that many dashboard symbols are universal, but not all of them. If there’s an icon lit on your dash that doesn’t match one of the ones above, look it up in your vehicle’s owner’s manual. Once you do that, let us know and we’ll add it to our guide. Because no matter which car, truck, or SUV you drive, we want you to be safe and informed on the road.