dashboard lights display

Demystify those dashboard lights

Dashboard lights and instrument displays have been around for decades. Over the years they’ve evolved just as much as cars themselves. Your car dashboard is no longer just a barrier to protect you from road debris. It’s an information hub that can tell you everything from your current oil levels to how many miles you can drive with the gas remaining in your tank.

In the earliest days, car dashboard instruments gave drivers only the most basic data – like fuel levels and coolant temperature. By the 1930s and 40s, those instruments included gauges and indicator lights, also known as idiot lights. They simply turned on or off without providing any additional information. Drivers needed basic knowledge of automotive mechanics to understand a red light for oil pressure was a warning to turn off the engine to prevent damage or an amber light meant the alternator wasn’t charging.

Dashboard Lights Today

Over the years, more instruments like speedometers, turn signal indicators, and high beam indicators were added to help drivers comply with traffic laws. Today’s vehicles allow drivers to have access to an overwhelming amount of information. Everything from average gas mileage to when to schedule maintenance is viewable from the driver’s seat. They can also make it confusing to know what exactly what to do when a warning light comes on.

The best way to understand the dashboard panel in your car is to refer to your vehicle’s owner’s manual. Inside, you’ll find a full rundown on the instruments and warning lights, along with brief information about what each indicates. Many times, vehicle dashboard lights won’t tell you exactly what went wrong. Instead, it will alert you that there’s an issue with your car that needs attention.

Types of Dashboard Lights

There are generally three different grades of dash indicator, separated by color: Green or Blue, Yellow or Orange, and Red.

Green or blue dashboard lights are notification lights, telling you that a feature of your car is active. They don’t signal a fault or problem. Rather, they are an indication that these parts of your car are functioning exactly how you want them to function. Think your headlights, high beams, cruise control, or parking assistance system.

Yellow or orange dashboard lights are low-grade warning lights. There is a problem in your car that you should deal with in the very near future. Your car can usually still be driven a few miles, or the fix is one that can be easily taken care of, like closing your car door or pulling up to a gas station to fill your fuel tank.

Red dashboard lights are serious warning lights. You should stop immediately, or risk damage to the car. If you are out driving when you see a red warning light, pull over and call AAA if you need roadside assistance to move your car for service.

More vehicle news and research from AAA


If one of those mysterious warning lights does come on in your car, you’ll probably need it serviced. To make that process easier, AAA has created the AAA Approved Auto Repair program. AAA Oregon/Idaho actively recruits repair shops in your area that are uniquely qualified to work on your vehicle. Only shops that demonstrate that they possess the equipment and the certified, trained technicians able to work on today’s high tech vehicles gain acceptance into the program. By holding these repair shops to the highest standards, we make sure that they earn our trust, so they’ll be able to gain yours.

Learn more about AAA Approved Auto Repair

AAA Membership

While it’s important for drivers to know what their dashboard lights mean, it’s also important to have the peace of mind on the road of life. AAA membership gives you confidence when you drive, as well as discounts, insurance, and travel services that extend far beyond the roadside.

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