Looking for real warning signs


It seems like every new car comes with more warning lights on the dashboard than any models that arrived previously. And I’m wondering…

What’s the point?

If you asked most people about why the lights are there, and used those responses without investigation, you’d probably believe the argument for their existence is pretty sound. After all, indicators that tell you when something is wrong seem like a fairly positive thing. And I believe that almost all of us, if asked to summarize those dashboard announcements, would arrive at something that covers them delivering a message that there is a problem.

The trouble is… well… the trouble. Or more precisely, the lack thereof.

Recently I was driving my car and the maintenance required light came on.

I don’t think I’m alone in saying that when a warning light of some type suddenly appears on the dashboard of my operating vehicle, I want to take it seriously. I want to immediately check my mirrors, bring together a checklist of actions and movements that bring me and the vehicle across the lanes to the side of the road and guide myself to safety without endangering others.

But every time those lights appear, it never seems like any come on for a massive issue that justifies “get over to the side of the road and shut the car down NOW” actions. Instead, like my maintenance required light (which I did have checked as quickly as possible), much more often than not they tend to be a reminder, such as when an oil change is due.

Forgive me for drifting into such thoughts… but I often find myself thinking that a really helpful light would be one that comes on before the transmission craps out. Or something that indicates the oil pump is on the edge of kaputting. You know, bringing to my attention an issue where a few hundred dollars of repairs might be necessary, but if I do get to the side of the road, turn the car off, and call triple-a for a tow, that light probably saved me thousands.

Such lights don’t seem to exist though.

Ok… we can pause for a moment here since a few are raising hands and getting ready to interject something about lights for oil pressure and batteries. My response? Good for you. But, one of the funny foundations of my headaches is based on how the more lights we get on the dashboard, the less important the reason is that they came on.

Oil pressure and batteries have been part of dashboard light design for quite some time. Temperature gauges too. Oil and battery issues can ruin your afternoon. I agree with you. But… those lovely check engine lights come on when gas cap is loose.

Yes… yes… I’m simplifying in an attempt at humor. A check engine light can mean something more severe than gas caps and oil changes and oxygen sensors and so on. The problem is, depending on the car you’re driving, the light might be yellow, could be a picture of an engine, might be blinking, and… are you seeing the difficulty here? We’re back to as soon as the light comes on, pull over, check the car’s manual or grab your smartphone and begin a new search. Because between tire pressure, traction control, anti-lock brake systems, maintenance required, check engine, pictures of engines… the list goes on… there are a lot of pictures, words and letters to be prepared for.

And… yup, you knew this… there’s a massive gap in severity (and repair costs) that fall between a loose gas cap and a seriously misfiring engine.

My complaint isn’t with the existence of the light… isn’t with the concept of warning drivers (and owners) of problems both large and small… isn’t with offering me feedback on multiple issues. I like the idea of identifying problems, storing information, and looking for ways to catch things early. And I am not going to ask you to remove a light that can tell me something might need a bit of research or troubleshooting.

Instead… my complaint is the all-in-one approach they take in delivering the news. And if you’re not sure what I mean, then please tell me what car you’re driving that has a “stop driving now” light for the serious issues.

Part of this for me is how often the problem isn’t a problem, but rather the system that is supposedly identifying the problem. I’ve had the tire pressure lights come on before… but never because the tire pressure was low. Instead, the tire pressure sensor was broken. Every time it’s happened.

So, here’s to the dashboard and the warning lights on them. I’m grateful for the help. If you don’t mind though, would you get in the back seat with the other well-meaning though no less annoying advice givers? Thanks.


If you have any comments or questions, please e-mail me at Bob@inmybackpack.com