You’re driving along, singing a song, and everything’s fine and dandy.
Then you see it … the orange-red glow of the check engine light. And suddenly life’s not so hunky-dory anymore.
Do you drive straight home? Pull over? Check something? Panic?!
While there are literally dozens of reasons your check engine light may be triggered, there’s typically no need to panic. Here’s why.
1. It might just be your gas cap
Many people don’t know this, but a loose, cracked, or faulty gas cap can cause fuel to evaporate, thus cuing your check engine light.
So first things first, pull over (as soon as it’s safe) and make sure your gas cap is on tight. If this was indeed the trigger, your check engine light should go off within 10 or 20 miles once you’re back on the road.
2. A certified mechanic should be able to diagnose the problem easily
Technology is on its way to helping us figure out what’s gone wrong when the check engine light comes on. But for now, whenever that pesky light comes on, your best bet is to take your car to a certified mechanic and let them diagnose the problem.
3. It’s typically not an emergency
Here’s where there’s some good news. Unlike some of the other lights in your car (your oil light, for example) that could mean a big problem if you don’t address it right away, your check engine light rarely signals anything disastrous.
When it comes on you’re probably okay to drive a few more miles or even a few more days. (That being said, do the smart thing and take it to see a mechanic as soon as you can.)
4. There are numerous reasons the light may come on
Aside from a loose gas cap, all other reasons for your check engine light coming on are much more complicated to diagnose (and likely not things you can fix on the side of the road). Triggers can include everything from a damaged vacuum hose or ignition coil(s) to a failing catalytic converter to worn out spark plugs (just to name a few).
No idea what any of that means? That’s OK — most of us don’t. Most modern cars have an on-board diagnostic system that provides a code identifying the specific issue at hand. If you take your car to a pro or even select auto part stores, they can figure out what the code means so you can act accordingly.
So when you see that light flickering in the corner of your dash, know that while you will need to see a mechanic in the near future, there’s absolutely no need to panic. It’s ok to keep going, just make sure you have it checked out as soon as you can.