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Seeing the Light: Understanding Your Car's Warning System

Understanding Your Car's Dashboard Warning Lights

Every time you start your car they glow to greet you, but after few seconds of engine operation they fade away - hopefully not to be seen again until the next engine start. As part of Car Care Month, AAA is urging motorists to heed their car's cry for attention and be aware of the indi-cator lights on the instrument panel that illuminate to let you know when a problem occurs.

"Motorists need to be aware of the critical — 'big three' — warning lights. They include those that monitor engine oil pressure, engine coolant temperature, and the vehicle charging system," says John Nielsen, Director of AAA Automotive. To help motorists better understand the important role of these three warning lights, AAA provides a brief explanation of each.

When the ignition key is first turned to the ON position, all of the vehicle's warning lights should illuminate. The "big three" lights typically remain on until the engine is started and running. Once the engine is running, all the warning lights should go out within a few seconds. If any light remains illuminated, consult the sections below for further information.

Engine Oil Pressure
The engine oil pressure warning light commonly displays an oil can symbol or the word "OIL". When the light illuminates, the engine has lost its supply of pressurized lubricating oil and severe engine damage or catastrophic failure can occur within seconds. Of all the warning lights, the oil pressure light indicates the greatest potential for serious mechanical damage, and also allows you the shortest time in which to take appropriate action.

If the oil pressure warning light comes on and stays on: pull off the road immediately and shut off the engine. Driving any further can significantly increase the extent of any engine damage — turning a possibly minor repair into a complete engine replacement.

Engine Coolant Temperature
The engine coolant temperature warning light commonly displays a thermometer symbol or the logo "TEMP". When the light illuminates, the engine temperature has exceeded the safe maximum. If the increase in temperature continues, major engine damage or catastrophic failure will result.

If the coolant temperature warning light comes on, quickly assess the situation. Steam or liquid coolant coming from under the hood are clear indications of overheating and/or a leak. Pull off the road at the first safe opportunity; continuing to operate an engine with an illuminated temperature warning light will result in a major damage and a significant repair bill.

Charging System
The charging system warning light commonly displays a battery symbol or the logo "ALT" or "GEN". When the warning light illuminates, the vehicle electrical system is no longer being supplied with power by the alternator.

A charging system failure rarely results in serious mechanical damage, and gives you the greatest amount of time to take appropriate action. If the charging system warning light comes on, turn off all unnecessary electrical accessories and drive to the nearest repair facility to have the vehicle checked.