FLORHAM PARK–Have you ever had a warning light come on while you were driving, but didn’t know how to react?
- What does it mean?
- Should I pull over?
- Will my car quit running?
- Is it really that important?
- Can I just ignore it?
“Warning lights are there for a reason-to let you know that something is wrong with your car,” says Jeff Santana, general manager of the AAA Car Care Center in Springfield. “In some cases, a warning light can quickly result in catastrophic damage to your car’s engine, so it’s important to know what each light means and what you should do if it comes on while you’re driving.”
Not all warning lights indicate that disastrous consequences are about to occur, but no illuminated warning indicator should ever be ignored. AAA encourages motorists to check their owner’s manual for a detailed explanation of all the warning lights in the vehicle. Here are some of the most common indicators:
Oil Pressure Light
The oil pressure light (usually an oil can symbol or the word “OIL”) illuminates when there is a drop in engine oil pressure. Of all the warning lights, this one indicates the greatest potential for serious mechanical damage. And it allows you the shortest time to in which to take action.
If the oil pressure light comes on and stays on while driving, pull off the road immediately, shut off the engine and call for assistance. Don’t attempt to drive the vehicle any further than absolutely necessary. Doing so will significantly increase the extent of any engine damage-turning what might be a minor repair into a complete engine replacement.
Engine Temperature Light
The engine temperature light (usually a thermometer symbol or the word “TEMP”) comes on when the engine temperature has exceeded the safe maximum. If the increase in temperature is not stopped, major engine damage or catastrophic failure will result. The engine temperature light also indicates the potential for severe engine damage, but it normally gives you a little more time to take action before that occurs.
If there is also steam or liquid coolant coming from under the hood, it could mean there is a cooling system leak. Pull off the road at the earliest safe opportunity, shut off the engine and call AAA for assistance. If steam and/or liquid are not coming from the hood, the overheating may have resulted from a temporary overload of the cooling system. To help lower engine temperature, reduce vehicle speed, turn off the air conditioning, roll down windows, set the heater to the full hot position and operate the blower motor on its highest setting.
Charging System Light
The charging system light (typically a battery symbol or the word “ALT” or “GEN”) illuminates when the vehicle electrical system is no longer being supplied power by the alternator. Charging system failure rarely results in serious mechanical damage, and as one of the “big three” warning lights, gives you the most amount of time to take action.
If the light comes on while driving, shut down all unnecessary electrical loads (radio, heater, air conditioning, etc.), then drive the vehicle to a repair facility for further inspection. Generally, you’ll have at least 15 minutes of daylight driving time before the battery voltage drops to the point where the ignition system will no longer function and the engine will quit. You should have the complete system should be checked by a trained technician with proper tools and equipment.
Check Engine Light
The check engine light (usually an engine symbol with the words “CHECK ENGINE SOON”) comes on when there is a problem affecting the vehicle’s exhaust emissions. When the check engine light is on, the vehicle may display driveability symptoms and the fuel economy will likely decrease. If the check engine light comes on and stays on, make an appointment to have the problem checked in the near future. If the light begins flashing repeatedly, the catalytic converter is overheating. Should this occur, drive immediately to a repair shop and have it checked. Disregarding a flashing check engine light could start a fire or destroy the catalytic converter.
The brake light (usually a circular symbol with an exclamation point and/or the word “BRAKE”) comes on when there is a loss in brake fluid pressure. The brake light can also illuminate to signal the emergency brake is on, so drivers should make sure that is not the case before panicking. If there is a loss of system pressure, a driver may feel the brake pedal depress farther than usual. When the brake warning light comes on, it’s extremely important to have the system thoroughly inspected as soon as possible.
The airbag light (usually a symbol of a seated person with a ball in front of their abdomen) comes on when a problem is detected with the airbag system. When the warning light is on, there is a strong likelihood that one or more of the vehicle airbags have been deactivated and will not deploy if the vehicle becomes involved in a collision. Drivers should make an appointment to have the system inspected as soon as possible.
Tire Pressure Light
The tire pressure monitoring system (TPMS) light (usually a tire cross section with an exclamation point) comes on when one or more tires are significantly underinflated. This could be the result of gradual pressure leakage over time, or that an object has punctured a tire.
If the TPMS displays individual warning pressures, check the dash display. If the pressures are all within a few pounds of one another, the warning is probably from gradual leakage. If one pressure is significantly lower than the others, a puncture is probably likely. A severely deflated tire will affect handling and may cause the vehicle to drift to one side. If a problem is apparent, call AAA for assistance. If not, drive at a reduced speed to the nearest gas station and have the tires inspected and the pressures adjusted.
In most cases, the illumination of a warning light on a dashboard should result in a trip to a repair facility for further inspection. For reliable vehicle repairs and maintenance, visit the AAA Car Care Center (135 Route 22 East) in Springfield. Services offered include oil changes, tune-ups, manufacturer-recommended service intervals, computerized wheel alignment, heating, air conditioning, brakes, battery service, and electrical and charging system repair. Open to the public, the AAA Car Care Center offers all customers a 12-month/12,000 mile warranty on parts and labor, while AAA members receive an extended 2-year/24,000 mile warranty and 10 percent off labor. For more information about the AAA Car Care Center, visit AAA.com/CarCare.
The AAA New Jersey Automobile Club, headquartered in Florham Park, provides automotive, travel, insurance, financial and educational services to residents of Essex, Morris and Union Counties. Visit AAA online at AAA.com.
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