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Know Your Dashboard Signals to Practice Safe Driving Skills

Updated: Oct 19, 2023

May 12 is National Odometer Day, and believe it or not, odometers have been around longer than cars. Your car’s odometer has a simple, yet important job. It tells you how far the car has traveled over its lifespan. This information helps you keep track of maintenance, helps mechanics diagnose problems, and helps your insurance company determine your rates based on how much you drive per year.

View of a car dashboard and steering wheel.

There was a time when the odometer was one of a few important indicators on the dashboard. Today, your dashboard is so informative that it is hard to keep track of what each light means. If we don’t take time to understand what our cars are trying to tell us, then every indicator light in the world will not help us ensure that our cars are safe to drive. While coaching your teen driver on safe driving skills, don’t forget to spend some time going over the dashboard details with the owner’s manual in hand.

What Do Dashboard Light Colors Mean?

Since everyone understands the traffic light color system, these colors are common in all kinds of everyday applications. That includes your dashboard indicator lights. Typically, green (sometimes blue) lights mean systems are operating, yellow or orange lights indicate a need for maintenance, and red lights are a warning that something is wrong or needs immediate attention.

When you first turn on your ignition, many of your red lights will appear and then go out. This is usually a brief systems check, and you only need to be concerned if that red light stays on for more than about 5 seconds. Again, check your owner’s manual to learn the specifics about your car’s signals. The most common red warnings usually inform you that not all the seatbelts are buckled, or that a door is still open. Once everyone is buckled and all the doors are closed, these lights should go out.

What Are All the Symbols on My Dashboard?

Car manufacturers use symbols, or little pictures, to refer to all the systems in the car. When teen drivers first see all of these symbols, it will feel like trying to read a foreign language. While some symbols are easily interpreted, such as the seatbelt warning, others are harder to decipher. Considering the technological developments in dashboard indicators, even experienced drivers who grew up in analog cars have had to dive into the manual to identify many lights. How perplexed were you the first time you saw a tire pressure indicator?

When teen drivers see a light come on while driving, they need to be able to process the meaning of that light quickly and safely. The last thing you need is for your teen to start panicking behind the wheel because they fear the worst about that indicator. The best prevention is preparation. One thing they should really understand is that there is never a reason to panic over a dashboard light. If they don’t remember what the symbol means, they just need to get the car to a safe place to park, and then look up the warning.

Go over the indicators with the owner’s manual before you head out on your first parking lot practice session. Review what the most important lights mean, such as the Check Engine light, Battery light, Temperature warning, and Oil Pressure warning. Talk to your teen driver about what to do when these lights appear while driving, and quiz them throughout your driving lessons to make sure they remember the information.

Enhance Safe Driving Skills with Thorough Car Knowledge

Cars get more complicated and computerized all the time. There’s no way to keep up on everything without becoming a certified mechanic. But you must become familiar with the driver safety components of your car’s dashboard, and so must your teen driver. You just might find that teaching your teen to understand the dashboard lights proves to be a great refresher for yourself!

Are you getting ready to teach your teen to drive? Prepare yourself as a coach with a free copy of our Safe Driving Coach Parent's Guide: First Time Driving Behind the Wheel Checklist.

For more coaching preparation, we have an online course designed just for parents! Learn more about The Parent’s Survival Guide for New Teen Drivers before you start coaching your teen behind the wheel.


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