Living

The light goes on

Warning signs on your dashboard are there for a reason. Don't ignore them

Pain can be a powerful instructor. After years of dealing with bodily discomfort, you probably have a good handle on when to reach for the first aid kit and when to call for an ambulance. Although cars can’t feel pain, they do send out dashboard distress signals. Ignore the warnings and you’ll feel the pain – in your wallet.

Cars are equipped with a cute little oil pressure warning light that resembles Aladdin’s lamp. If it comes on, you might want to rub it and wish for the money for a new engine. The warning light means your oil pressure is at a dangerously low level, likely because of an oil leak. Your engine may be at the point of getting severely damaged, if it hasn’t already been harmed. Don’t wait for the next exit or next gas station. Pull over as soon as it’s safe to do so and shut off the engine. If you keep driving without proper lubrication you could destroy the engine, costing you thousands of dollars. Do not keep topping up your oil to forestall engine damage. That’s a short-term solution and it won’t fix the underlying problem. Take your car into the shop right away.

Just as a high fever can be fatal in people, overheating can kill car engines. When your car’s temperature gauge starts creeping toward the red zone, don’t ignore it. If your air conditioner is on, shut it off, as it’s aggravating the problem. If you’re stuck in stop-and-go traffic, leave a bigger gap to the car ahead, which is spewing hot exhaust fumes. If that doesn’t help, turn on your heater and heater fan full blast, which will draw heat away fron the engine and into the passenger compartment. Even with the windows open, it may feel like a sauna, but it could save your engine. If these steps don’t help bring down the temperature, pull over, shut off the engine and get help. The problem could be something as simple as a leaking radiator hose, a $20 to $40 repair. Keep driv-ing and you could be on the hook for a new engine.

The icon for the brake warning light is sometimes an exclamation point. If it lights up, it signals panic, not joy. First check to see if your parking brake is fully or partly engaged, as that will trigger the light. If the brake is fully released, the problem may be a brake fluid leak or a serious malfunction that could lead to total brake failure. Take the vehicle in for service right away.

The check engine light can be triggered by a variety of faults, so it doesn’t shed much light into the nature or severity of the problem. “It could be something as minor as a loose fuel filler cap, or as serious as a speed sensor malfunction, which can cause severe damage to your transmission,” notes Kirk Robinson, owner of Robinson Automotive in Mississauga, Ont., and host of Auto Talk on Rogers Television. Although the problem might be minor, it’s best to get the vehicle inspected.

A weak battery in your camera may let you down at family outings. A weak battery in your car may not only leave you stranded, it could harm other more costly components. “You can fail a transmission by having a weak battery,” says Robinson. “If the transmission isn’t getting the proper voltage, it won’t shift properly and can become damaged.” A good battery won’t work well unless properly charged, which is the function of the alternator. Dashboard warning signs, such as a glowing battery icon or (in some vehicles) a drooping alternator gauge, will plug you into signs of electrical trouble. They should spark your attention. Truth is, it’s easy to overlook the polite little light that’s a plea for help. “Just because you can still drive your car doesn’t mean it’s all right,” notes Robinson. “You know, those lights are red for a reason.”

Maryanna Lewyckyj is consumer advocate for the Toronto Sun. She conducts car care seminars for women through her company, Autophobics Anonymous.