Every dashboard is different. Some dashboards value brevity, having just a fuel gauge and check oil light (old Super Beetle, we’re looking at you). Others are so complicated you feel as though you should be launching a space shuttle mission every time you turn on the engine.

But no matter how simple or complicated your dashboard is, any time a light goes on, it can startle and even scare you. While no light should be “ignored,” per se, some need more immediate attention than others. Familiarizing yourself with what each one means can help prevent panic, so you can calmly deal with the situation (this is also when your car manual comes in handy).

Though you should always get your car checked out by a professional, it’s important to know what each light means. Here are 7 common warning lights and why they might be on.

1. Engine temperature warning light

Best guess: Your engine could be overheating.

What to do: Turn off your air conditioner, radio, and other systems. Pull over to a safe place and call for roadside assistance. (If you’re within sight of a gas station, you can drive there.) And if you want to add your own coolant, don’t try to open the radiator for at least 30 minutes since opening a hot radiator drops the system pressure, which may cause it to spew dangerously hot liquid and steam.

2. Oil pressure warning light

Best guess: Your car might be low on oil.

What to do: You should pull over to a safe place and stop the car — if your oil pressure drops too low, you can irreparably damage your engine. It could be that you just need to top off your oil, but it could be something more serious. Call roadside assistance before venturing further.

3. Check engine light

Best guess: This light can go on for a number of reasons, such as your gas cap not being screwed on tight enough or your spark plugs needing replacement.

What to do: No need to panic. Proceed to the nearest service station at your earliest convenience to see if they can help identify and remedy the issue.

4. Tire pressure warning light

Best guess: One (or more) of your tires needs additional air.

What to do:  You can safely drive a few miles to home or a service station, but driving on underinflated tires too far or too fast can irreparably damage them.

5. Gas tank light

Best guess: Your fuel level is low.

What to do: Usually a gas tank light comes on when you have about an eighth of a tank left. That’s enough time to safely find a gas station, but don’t push it. Running out of gas can be very dangerous for you and all the cars around you.

6. Battery light

Best guess: Something is wrong with the battery: either it needs to be replaced or the wiring or alternator need to be repaired.

What to do: Head to a service or repair station as soon as possible because some battery issues can cause the vehicle to lose power.

7. Seat belt light

What it means: Bet you can figure this out!
What to do: You weren’t going to drive without your seat belt on, were you? Buckle up. Now. (And that goes for your passengers too!)

Mystery lights

Of course, some lights might illuminate randomly. When that happens, your best bet is to contact your repair shop or dealer. They might’ve received a service bulletin and know why a warning light is suddenly coming on.

And remember that Esurance is also here to help. Download our mobile app for access to roadside assistance and more.

Safe and smart | Car safety


about Cathie

Cathie Ericson writes about personal finance, real estate, health, lifestyle, and business topics. When she's not writing she loves to read, hike, and run. Find her @CathieEricson.