What do the brake warning lights in your dashboard mean?

A warning light appearing on a dashboard is almost never good news, and the most infamous example of this is the Check Engine light which can upheave an entire day. While not as disastrous, the brake warning system in a car also has several indicator lights which light up if a problem with the system is detected. Similar to the check engine light, the longer these are left unchecked, the worse the problem can get, and the more severe the damage might be. In general, a vehicle has two types of brakes – the normal brakes used during driving, and the parking or emergency break. Vehicle brakes are one of the most important systems in a car and even a small malfunction can cause an accident, leading to property damage, injury, or loss of life. Therefore, being aware of the various indicators of potential brake failure is important for car maintenance and driving safety.

If the dashboard indicator is a ‘P’ enclosed by a circle and two arcs on either side, the indicator is for the emergency or parking brake, and it simply means that the emergency break is engaged. The light should turn off once the brake is disengaged. This is not exactly anything to be worried about, provided the brake is disengaged before beginning to drive. The warning exists because the damage that can be caused to the vehicle by driving with the emergency brake on. If the car is front wheel driven, the car may not even move and the damage is minor if it does, the rear wheels would simply drag on the ground. If the car is rear wheel driven, however, the engine can overpower the brakes and it is entirely possible to drive around without noticing the brakes are engaged. This will almost certainly damage the brakes. It should be noted that the warning light does not warn the driver when exiting the car without engaging the brakes. Such functionality can be obtained by the use of a Redarc Handbrake alarm. Forgetting to engage the parking brakes before existing the vehicle puts it at risk of moving unintentionally and potentially injuring pedestrians or causing accidents.

If the dashboard indicator is a ‘!’ enclosed by a circle and two arcs on either side, the indicator is for the standard service hydraulic braking system, and most commonly lights up when brake fluid is low although it can signify other issues as well. The brake fluid is what brake systems use to transfer force. Insufficient fluid will cause the brake systems to fail.If the brake fluid is at normal levels and the light is still on, further repairs might be required. Note that brake fluid is not meant to drain during normal operation so if it does occur, there might be a leak.

If the dashboard indicator is a ‘O’ enclosed by two arcs on either side, it indicates that the brake pads are damaged or worn out and needs replacement. This indicator may not be present in older cars.