Car maintenance: What your vehicle's warning lights are telling you

When your dashboard is a rainbow of neon and flashing colors, you've got a problem. But, is it time...

When your dashboard is a rainbow of neon and flashing colors, you've got a problem. But, is it time to head to the nearest service station or can your car maintenance wait? It all depends on the warning symbol. Here's the 411 on your car's lesser known communication system symbols--and what action you need to take.

  • ALT: If this three-letter symbol is illuminated, your car's alternator (ALT) is not functioning properly. Since your alternator keeps your battery charged, it's a good idea to get this problem checked out sooner rather than later, but it won't likely leave you stranded by the side of the road the minute the light pops on.
  • ABS: This icon is related to your anti-lock brakes and system. It's normal for this to flash when you start your car, but if it stays on while you're cruising down the road, make the next turn into a repair shop. Brakes are nothing to mess with; this is car maintenance you need pronto.
  • Triangle with an exclamation point inside: This is the universal icon for a problem with your car. This symbol doesn't direct you to a specific system or component of the car like other icons. It's a general warning. It's best to take action quickly, especially if you notice other signs of an impending breakdown, such as smoke billowing out from under the hood. Pull over and call for a tow truck to safely move your car to a repair shop.
  • Gear icon with an exclamation point in the center: This symbol indicates a problem with the car's drive train system. This is the powerhouse of the vehicle and when there's an issue, you need car maintenance immediately. If the car is still drivable, get off the roadway and park in a safe spot, such as a parking lot. If your car is still under warranty, call the dealer and explain your situation. A through inspection will be needed to diagnose the specific problem.
  • Octagon with a circle in the middle: This dashboard icon is related to your brake fluid. For some reason, it's not flowing properly and could lead to problems with your braking system. Pull over and peek under the car. If you notice a liquid leaking near any of your tires, stay put and call a tow truck. Leaking liquid means your brake lines are damaged, which reduces pressure in the braking system and ultimately makes your brakes ineffective.

Still not sure what a certain dashboard symbol is telling you? Play it safe and visit an auto repair shop in Atlanta ASAP. When it comes to car maintenance, having a professional diagnose the situation is the best choice.

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