Drivers can see red in the face of high prices at the gas pump. Ignoring the red on a car’s dashboard – when the red warning lights come on – could destroy the engine, lead to an accident, or simply reduce the car’s gas mileage.
When a red light comes on, AAA recommends getting to a safe place as soon as possible and calling a tow to a repair facility.
“This is considered a serious warning and you should stop driving or risk damaging your car,” said Meredith Mitts of AAA Minnesota-Iowa. “Even if your vehicle doesn’t stop running right away, it could put you as a driver and anyone on the roads around you at risk when it decides to stop running.”
Dan Burns of Lloyd’s Automotive Service in St. Paul sees the worst-case scenarios that result from ignoring warning lights.
“The oil pressure light came on, they ignored it and kept driving the vehicle and wrecked the engine,” Burns said. “We don’t see this every week or every month, but certainly every year we see it.”
Gary DeRusha, who with his wife, Jane, runs Bobby & Steve’s Auto World in Eden Prairie, recently had a customer who ignored the coolant level warning light and as a result needed a new engine. The customer continued to drive as coolant leaked from the water pump, overheating the car until it got so hot it cracked the cylinder head.
“It’s always cheaper for him to put in a new engine than to go out and buy a new car, but you have to have common sense,” DeRusha said. “These lights are designed to help and protect you from damage like that.”
Don’t ignore dashboard lights unless you know what they mean, Burns said. Details on each light are in the owner’s manual.
Know your lights
Here are the warning lights that drivers absolutely cannot ignore:
Low oil pressure: “If your engine has low oil pressure, your engine is going to fail,” said Burns, who has four decades of automotive service experience. “You would need to take care of that immediately.”
Engine overheating: You have a little more time than with low oil pressure, but not much. “Maybe you could get off the freeway before you park, pull over, and cut the engine,” Burns said.
Check Engine: This one is tricky because dozens of issues could cause the check engine light to come on, Burns said. Some need immediate attention, others can wait.
“If you ignore your check engine light and it’s not an emissions issue or something that doesn’t affect the running of the car, the car will still run fine,” Burns said.
“The problem is, because now the light is on, if a bigger problem comes up, you won’t know about it,” he said. “It’s a little risky to drive with the check-engine light on. You should have the repair done so that the check-engine light is off. Then, if a bigger problem arises, you’ll know about it.”
If the check engine light comes on shortly after filling up the car, it could mean the gas cap isn’t open properly and is letting too much air in the tank, Mitts said. . Pull over, unscrew the gas cap, retighten it, and drive another mile or two to see if the check engine light goes out.
“If you’re worried about gas prices, many of the issues that will illuminate your check engine light are related to fuel economy and fuel efficiency,” Burns said.
Other warning signs
Brake system: On many cars, the parking brake light and the brake pressure light are the same, Burns said. If the light is on but the parking brake is not, the problem may be with the brake components or the hydraulic system. Experts recommend stopping as soon as possible to do so safely. Then have the car towed for repair.
Low tire pressure: The warning light comes on when the pressure is low in one or more tires. Find a safe place to check the tires and fill them with air. Drivers have to check the tire pressure themselves and not believe that the car is following it correctly.
This warning can also mean that the tires are overinflated. A label on the driver’s door area indicates the correct tire pressure; some cars have different pressures for the front and rear tires.
Battery: When this light is on, the alternator is not recharging the battery. A driver may let it go for a little while, but the battery voltage will eventually get low enough that the engine stalls.
Coolant level: Short-term driving should be fine if the driver adds coolant soon, Burns said. If the engine overheats, the driver should stop in a safe place to allow the engine to cool before continuing to drive.
Airbag: This light means that the airbag system has failed a self-test when starting the car or while driving. This disables the airbag system to prevent it from deploying by mistake. But they also won’t deploy in the event of a crash. “It’s safe to drive but not safe to drive,” Burns said. “I mean, you drive without airbags, which we know saves lives.”
Seatbelt: When the seatbelts are locked, the system tightens them at the same time as it deploys the airbags in the event of a crash, Burns said. If the seat belts are not locked, the airbags will not deploy in the event of a collision.
Keep the lights off
Routine and preventative maintenance can help prevent warning lights from illuminating. “The cheapest insurance you have on a car is to make sure you have good, fresh oil and that it’s full at all times,” DeRusha said.
DeRusha, who worked in auto service for 32 years, also recommended checking coolant, power steering and brake fluids and filters, belts and hoses. Antifreeze, counterintuitively, will help prevent some breakdowns, especially in the heat.
When a check engine or other warning light comes on, some auto repair shops, parts stores, and dealerships will perform a free reading of the car’s on-board diagnostic system to identify the problem. Drivers can check AAA’s website for auto service centers the organization has vetted at aaa.com/autorepair.