What those little lights and dials mean and why you should listen when they "speak" to you.
So you’re stranded at the side of the road or stuck in the driveway.
Before you kick the door panel, you should know that your car had probably been trying to warn you in its special sign language. It "speaks" to you from those gauges in the dash.
Here’s a roundup of what those gauges are trying to tell you and, in some cases, what you could have done to keep them quiet in the first place,
BATTERY LIGHT — More than half the distress calls received by AAA’s Emergency Road Service are the "won’t start" variety. It could be caused by a couple of things, but usually it means your battery has died, something you would have known was going to happen if you’d paid attention to that beacon of trouble to come: the battery light. It’s supposed to flash when you start the car. But the battery could be on its last legs if it remains lit when the engine is running. A couple of other battery warning signs: The engine is slow to turn over, or your headlights dim when the engine is idling. A lot of a battery’s life expectancy depends on where you live and how you drive, but you can help prolong it by cleaning the terminals every so often with a wire brush and a solution of baking soda and water, which cleans the corrosion to enhance the contact between the posts and the cable.
OIL PRESSURE LIGHT — If this comes on, it means you probably need oil — now! The light tells you that your engine’s out of oil pressure, which usually means there’s very little oil in the crankcase. And if your car runs for even less than a minute with the oil pressure light on, it could quickly destroy the engine — don’t even think about trying to make it to the next gas station. One of the major reasons this happens is the owner isn’t checking and changing oil. Check it every time you refill; change it every 7,500 miles.
TEMPERATURE GAUGE — Two kinds of indicators measure the temperature of the engine coolant: a dial version and a warning light version. The dial version has a needle that will read from cold to hot and has a normal range in between. The good thing about the dial version is that you can see an overheating situation coming if the needle starts moving from its normal position (from the one-quarter to the half mark) to the hot zone at the extreme right. The problem with the warning light version is you won’t know you’re in trouble until it flashes. The most common reasons for overheating: You don’t have enough antifreeze, or there’s a leak in the cooling system. But if you reach critical mass, don’t make a run for the gas station — that can cause big engine damage. It’s best to call for a tow, but you could try to let it cool down, then pour antifreeze (from a winter survival kit you should keep in the trunk) into the coolant reservoir — not directly into the radiator — and drive to the nearest certified repair facility, keeping a keen eye on the temperature gauge as you go.
BRAKE LIGHT — It’s telling you there’s been a change in brake pressure. Most likely, the car has lost the ability to get power to the brakes. The good news is the front and rear brakes rarely fail simultaneously, but even if one set goes, your ability to stop is going to change dramatically for the worse. If you see the brake light, get off the road as quickly — and safely — as possible. Then call for help. It’s recommended you have the brakes checked every time you change oil.
ABS LIGHT — It’s supposed to flash when you start the car, but if it stays on, it means you need to make a service stop. This is not as threatening as the brake light illuminating, but the brakes could lock up in a quick-stop situation.
CHARGING SYSTEM GAUGE OR WARNING LIGHT — This gauge/lamp monitors the health of the electrical system. When it lights up, it means something in the electrical system is malfunctioning. It could be something as minor as a loose wiring connection or something as severe as a complete electrical failure. Get it checked out by a certified mechanic quickly. You might avoid being stranded by regularly checking the serpentine belt — it’s the only belt under the hood — to make sure it’s not frayed or cracked.
CHECK ENGINE LIGHT — Unfortunately, the appearance of this light doesn’t flag a specific problem, and you’re not going to know the gravity of the situation until you get it checked out by a technician. Most of the time, it’s something happening in the emissions control system, but it needs to be checked as soon as possible.
AND DON’T FORGET TO TREAD ON THIS — Flat-tire calls are second on AAA’s most frequent calls list. True, there isn’t a gauge or dial inside the car to tell you when a tire is about to blow or no longer can stand up to skidding and hydroplaning, but it will indicate to you when it’s ready to be recycled. Many tires now have built-in tread-wear indicators or "wear bars" that look like narrow strips of smooth rubber across the tread when it’s worn down to "worn-out." That occurs when the tread measures 1/16th of an inch. An easy way to check: Stick an upside-down penny into the tread. If you see Lincoln’s head, it’s time to retire the tire. Generally, tires should last 60,000 to 80,000 miles with proper maintenance. That means rotating them every 10,000 miles. Most premature flats occur from driving on underinflated tires. Keep them at the recommended pressure, which should be listed on the driver’s side doorjamb or on the door itself. (Some cars are equipped with a tire-pressure warning light.) Underinflated tires can knock off a quarter of the tires’ life expectancy, not to mention cut into your gas mileage as much as 20 percent.