Survey: Dashboard lights fail to send right message

Many drivers don't know what common car warning lights mean, according to a new survey.

By QuinStreet Dec 5, 2013 11:57AM

This post comes from Michelle Megna at partner site on MSN MoneyWhen your car's dashboard lights start glowing, they're trying to tell you something, but many drivers aren't getting the message.

Check engine warning light © mario loiselle/Getty Images
Drivers are most likely to be ignorant of what tire pressure, brake system and electrical warning lights mean, according to a new survey.  Almost 20 percent are unaware of what the low-fuel and temperature icons signify, results show. commissioned a survey of 2,000 drivers, asking them to match the correct definition to 10 common warning light icons. (See results in chart below.)


Men vs. women on warning light know-how

Survey results show that, overall, drivers aren't super confident about their warning light knowledge.  Thirty-seven percent said they feel "very confident" they would know what a dashboard light means without looking it up in a car owner manual. Nearly half (49 percent) said they "might know," and 12 percent said they "probably wouldn't know."

Do you know what these car warning lights mean?

(Percentage of people who could not correctly identify lights)

tire pressure warning light

Tire pressure warning – 49 percent

brake system warning light

Brake system warning – 46 percent

Cruise control activated light

Cruise control activated – 42 percent

Fog beams activated light

Fog beams activated – 40 percent

Electrical problem warning light

Electrical problem warning – 24 percent

Low fuel warning light

Low fuel warning – 17 percent

Engine temperature warning light

Engine temperature warning – 17 percent

Child safety lock activated light

Child safety lock activated – 11 percent

Front air bag needs service light

Front air bag needs service – 10 percent

Open door warning light

Open door warning – 7 percent

Source: survey of 2,000 licensed drivers

When confidence level results are broken down by gender, men felt more confident than women:

Very confident

Men: 47 percent. Women: 28 percent.

Might know

Men: 28 percent. Women: 56 percent.

Probably wouldn't know

Men: 9 percent. Women: 15 percent.

Despite confusion over what warning lights mean, the majority of drivers surveyed seem happy with having a lot of lights. Eighty-two percent said they don't think their car has too many.

Traffic ahead's survey also asked respondents about their preferences for warning lights for some theoretical situations. If they existed, here’s how many people would want the extra light:

  • Traffic congestion ahead; choose alternate route: 24 percent
  • Tire tread below 2/32 depth, legal limit for safe driving: 19 percent
  • Speed trap ahead : 15 percent
  • Mouse or foreign object in engine: 10 percent
  • Time to rest, you've been driving too many hours without a break:  8 percent
  • Heavy load -- driver and passengers exceed recommended safe car weight limit: 7 percent
  • Noise level alert -- noise level in car has exceeded safe level for driving: 6 percent
  • Blood pressure too high for relaxed driving: 5 percent
  • Safe to eat -- notifies you that road conditions are safe for eating while driving: 3 percent
  • There's a McDonald’s within a half mile: 3 percent
More information, please
Drivers in the survey were very confused about the information you can find in a vehicle identification number (VIN).  A VIN is a string of letters and numbers that contains coded forms of information about your car, right down to when it rolled off the assembly line. You can find out the vehicle's year, make, model, country of origin, assembly plant and more, but just 18 percent knew the information contained in a VIN.

When asked about PSI, drivers fared better.  Eighty-nine percent knew it stands for pounds per square inch, a measurement used for tire pressure, and that the recommended pressure is stamped on tire walls.

Ever wonder what that D2 shift option is really for? Seventy-one percent of respondents knew that it is used to manually decelerate; for instance, when climbing or descending steep hills. Women outscored men on the typical best use of D2 -- 75 percent of females correctly answered compared to 66 percent of males. Eight percent of men said you use D2 for parking lot driving; 4 percent of women thought so.

Be safe, pay less in car insurance

Knowing the warning signs for when your vehicle needs servicing is important for safe driving. Maintenance issues can lead to accidents, which in turn can bring higher car insurance rates.

Methodology surveyed 2,000 licensed drivers age 18 and older. Respondents were split evenly between males and females and distributed across age groups according to Census data on age distribution. The online-panel survey was fielded in October 2013.

More from

Dec 6, 2013 9:52AM
Anyone ever think of reading the owner manual?
Dec 6, 2013 10:31AM

Instead of looking at the dashboard, open the hood, check the oil, check your antifireeze level, check your brake fluid and your power steering fluid, open the air cleaner and look at the air filter to see if it's getting dirty & time to change it, check your belts (my old Buick has two belts, and my newer car has one serpentine belt), check your tires every week for air pressure while looking at the condition of the tires and seeing whether they are getting worn down or not...  I also like to turn the lights on and walk around my car(s) to see if all my lights are working...


I do not think the condition of "being a woman" should prevent anyone from learning to take care of their car, either.  Don't be afraid to ask your mechanic questions about how to take care of your car, don't be afraid to ask "why did this malfunction?" or "why did this wear out?" because maybe it could have been prevented with better maintenance.  You can also get books on car care such as Robert Sikorsky's "Drive it Forever" which is easy for most people to understand.  Also, some vocational schools have "car care" classes that people can take, taught by mechanics where people can learn basic car care and how to make your car last longer.


Being feminine should not condemn a person to helplessness.  Today, if ladies can be astronauts, there is no reason they should not learn to check their car's oil and put air in their tires.


I have a 1972 Buick that is still running well and (usually) starts right up, so I must be doing something right.  I hope my Saturn lasts as long, however I do not know.  Newer cars just don't seem as durable as the cars they built decades ago.



Dec 6, 2013 11:36AM
Over 80% of those who have that pictured piece of plastic in their wallet, shouldn't have it.  You don't give a loaded gun to a moron!!!
Dec 6, 2013 12:26PM
People claim they want all this hi-tech gadgetry in their cars but then squeal like a stuck pig when they find out how much it costs to get it fixed.
Dec 6, 2013 12:15PM

When I have had warning lights I know what they are.  However before the going to a dealer I will

go to local parts store like Advanced Auto etc. and have them hook their hand held gizmo into the

car and it will show codes which are then deciphered to  the problem and all of this at no charge.

Dec 6, 2013 10:21AM
If you don't know this then you shouldn't have a license.
Dec 6, 2013 12:43PM
I fail the test, completely.  I have never had a car that possesses most of the shown indicator lights and am not certain but that most are just gimmickry anyway. 
Dec 5, 2013 11:33PM
I still know women who don't know who to pump gas let alone figure out what a warning light means.
Dec 6, 2013 1:53PM
We used to call these things "idiot lights" because only an idiot would not know there's a problem by the time one of these things goes off.
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