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Dashboard warning lights confuse drivers

Press release: 31/07/2013

  • 98% of drivers don't understand what all of the most common warning or information lights on a car dashboard mean
  • 99 dashboard symbol variations found in just 15 of the most popular new cars – but only 12 are consistent across all models
  • The Mercedes Benz E Class features almost twice (41) as many warning and information symbols as the Volvo S 40 (21)

Cars have become so complex that the majority of drivers (98%) don't understand what all of the most common warning or information lights on a car dashboard mean.

New research from Britannia Rescue reveals that many motorists are unable to identify the common information symbols on their car's dashboard with tyre pressure, engine emissions and fog light indicators deemed to be the most confusing.

When shown images of the 16 most common dashboard symbols [1], 71% of motorists do not recognise a tyre pressure warning light with one in twenty (4%) thinking it is something to do with the oil or brakes. Over a third (35%) of drivers do not recognise an airbag warning symbol with 27% mistaking it for a seatbelt warning.

The problem is being exacerbated by the fact that many warning light symbols are specific to a manufacturer or even the individual car model. Britannia Rescue compared 15 of the most popular new car models and found that there are 99 different dashboard symbols being used. Of these, just 12 were found across all models.

The number of symbols on a car's dashboard was also found to be substantially different from model to model. For example, the Mercedes Benz E Class features almost twice as many warning and information symbols (41) as the Volvo S 40 (21 symbols).

As in-car technology becomes more advanced there are now more and more in-car gadgets with symbols that support everything from the car's sat-nav system to its heating and cooling options. In many cars today, a light bulb is used to reference 'headlight,' a trumpet for a 'horn' and a snowflake for 'air conditioning' but just 10% of drivers know what all of these symbols mean.

In the past 12 months, one in four (25%) motorists have had one or more warning symbols light up while driving – most commonly the engine, oil or battery warning lights. Of those who had seen a warning light come on, almost half (46%) didn't know what they all meant at the time. Yet the majority admit they continued driving for more than a week, taking an average of 12 days to get their car fixed. In the past 12 months, one in twenty (6%) motorists say they have left a warning light un-checked for well over a month.

Ignoring a warning light is not only dangerous, it could also result in a costly visit to the garage. The research shows that drivers who took 14 days to repair their car spent more than double (£200) what drivers who got their car fixed immediately spent (£85).

Dashboard warning lights are like alarm bells telling you something is wrong with your car and urgent action may be required, either to prevent damage to your car or for your safety. If a warning symbol lights up, you should stop in a safe place as soon as possible and check what the problem is. Keep your vehicle manual handy so that you can easily check what that symbol means as well as what action to take.

Peter Horton, Britannia Rescue Managing Director


PCP Research questioned 2,018 drivers over 5-22 July 2013. PCP showed drivers a series of the most common dashboard symbols and asked them to name the symbol or describe its meaning.

In addition, PCP also used SMMT data to identify the most popular cars in the UK based on registrations of new cars in 2012. User manuals of each model were then compared and warning lights counted. Only lights or symbols on the instrument cluster included, meaning that any symbols appearing in other sections of the dashboard or elsewhere were excluded. PCP found 99 different dashboard symbols on 15 of the most popular new car models. Of these, 12 of the symbols were found on all models. A further breakdown can be provided and images supplied.

Table 1: the number of dashboard symbols found on 15 of the most popular new cars in the UK (registrations from 2012)

Make and model

Number of warning
/information lights

Mercedes Benz E Class


Fiat Punto


Skoda Octavia


Vauxhall Corsa


Toyota Yaris


Audi A3


Seat Ibiza


Land Rover Freelander


Renault Clio


Ford Fiesta


Citroen C3


Peugeot 207


BMW 3 Series


Nissan Micra


Volvo S40


Images of the symbols used for the research are available on request.

About Britannia Rescue

Britannia Rescue is part of the LV= group of companies. Britannia Rescue's network has over 3,000 breakdown professionals nationwide and average response time is 41 minutes.

LV= employs 5,700 people and serves over five million customers with a range of financial products. We are the UK's largest friendly society and a leading financial mutual.

When we started in 1843 our goal was to give financial security to more than just a privileged few and for many decades we were most commonly associated with providing a method of saving to people of modest means. Today we follow a similar purpose, helping people to protect and provide for the things they love, although on a much larger scale and through a wide range of financial services including insurance, investment and retirement products.

We offer our services direct to consumers, as well as through IFAs and brokers, and through strategic partnerships with organisations such as ASDA, Nationwide Building Society and a range of trade unions.

Authorised by the Prudential Regulation Authority and regulated by the Financial Conduct Authority and the Prudential Regulation Authority. LVFS is a member of the ABI, the AFM and ILAG. Registered address: County Gates, Bournemouth BH1 2NF.

  1. Drivers were shown images of the 16 most common symbols: car horn, oil pressure warning light, brake/ handbrake warning light, ABS warning light, battery warning light, engine warning light, hazard warning light symbol, engine overheat/coolant warning, airbag warning light, seat belt warning light, main beam symbol, low fuel warning light, fog light, windscreen washer symbol (the information symbol – as the warning light is not universal), windscreen defrost symbol and rear window symbol.