All modern cars have indicator lights on the dashboard to give drivers quick information about the car. In some cases, lights alert drivers to the status of various components and accessories. Think about the blue headlight lamp that comes on when you click on the high beams or the “BRAKE” light illuminating when the parking brake is set. In some cases, a light comes on when you deactivate some normally-on feature, as is the case with stability control systems or automatic transmission overdrives.
Lights can also alert drivers to abnormalities. Modern vehicles are loaded with computers, sensors, and diagnostic tools. Mechanics have readers that they can plug into the car, which will look at every detail. But everyday drivers don’t need that level of detail, so a light simply comes on that says, “This system needs looked at.” Cars have numerous systems that can “throw a light,” including the engine, brakes, airbags, tires, steering, and stability control.
What is the exclamation point meaning?
So, what does the exclamation point on the dash mean? Without knowing the make and model of the car, it’s impossible to tell. Manufacturers design their own lights, so the designation of each symbol matches their company standards and the vehicle’s design aesthetic.
The only sure-fire way to know for sure is to free the owner’s manual from its glovebox prison and look it up. A page shows a photo or illustration of the dash panel and a definition of every light that can come on. Based on the shape, color, and placement of the light, you should be able to find the part of the manual that talks about the affected system and what to do about it.
An exclamation point is designed to get your attention, so it is likely something that you should not ignore. Lights are usually yellow and red, with yellow meaning “caution” or “information” and red meaning “danger” or “immediate attention required.” Likewise, a light that constantly flashes is worse and requires quicker attention than a steady light does.
The exclamation point is usually inside of some other object. But due to the vagaries of design and the artistic talents of the folks who made the light, it can be a challenge to figure out what that object is. Tire pressure monitoring systems (TPMS) often use an exclamation mark inside of a flat tire, but if you didn’t know that, it might just look like a distorted circle. Exclamation points are sometimes placed inside light bulbs, usually meaning a turn signal or headlight lamp is burned out. An exclamation next to a steering wheel may mean a problem with the power steering.
In some cases, the exclamation mark is associated with something even more cryptic, like a circle or a triangle. These are a form of “master caution” or “general alert” light, telling you that there’s something else the system has to tell you. BMWs work like this. The light tells you to use the menu system to see a crucial message.
Requiring a code reader
In some cases, lights that come from onboard diagnostic computers will require a special code-reading tool to figure out why it came on. These tools are designed to make the mechanic’s job easier. They plug in the code reader and immediately understand why the light came on when it did. They can replace the faulty part or begin troubleshooting the problem at the right place.
Many auto parts stores will plug in a code reader and tell you the associated code for free. Most dealerships and auto mechanics will charge you a fee just to read the code, even if you decide not to fix it. You can also pick up inexpensive diagnostic code readers online.
If you go to the parts store or buy your own reader, you’ll need to back up your findings with some careful internet sleuthing. Thankfully, there are thousands of examples of every model car out there, and often they have similar problems caused by similar faults. The internet is a great way to connect with other drivers who got a light, found a code, replaced a part, and reported that it did or didn’t work. The answer isn’t always clear, but you can usually get close.
Summing everything up
Nearly all of the dash lights that involve exclamation marks can be resolved without any help. Remember, you need to check your vehicle’s owner’s manual for the correct answer in your situation. More often than not, something simple like checking the tire pressure or deactivating the traction control system will deactivate the light. But to know what steps to take, you just have to read the manual.