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When your car's dashboard lights start glowing, they're trying to tell you something, but many drivers aren't getting the message.

Drivers are most likely to be ignorant of what tire pressure, brake system and electrical warning lights mean, according to a new Insurance.com survey.  Almost 20 percent are unaware of what the low-fuel and temperature icons signify, results show.

Insurance.com commissioned a survey of 2,000 drivers, asking them to match the correct definition to 10 common warning light icons. (See results in chart below, right.)

Men vs. women on warning light know-how

Survey results show that, overall, drivers aren't super confident about their warning light knowledge.  Thirty-seven percent said they feel "very confident" they would know what a dashboard light means without looking it up in a car owner manual. Nearly half (49 percent) said they "might know," and 12 percent said they "probably wouldn't know."

Do you know what thesecar warning lights mean?

Percentage of people who could not correctly identify lights

tire pressure warning light

Tire pressure warning – 49 percent

brake system warning light

Brake system warning – 46 percent

Cruise control activated light

Cruise control activated – 42 percent

Fog beams activated light

Fog beams activated – 40 percent

Electrical problem warning light

Electrical problem warning – 24 percent

Low fuel warning light

Low fuel warning – 17 percent

Engine temperature warning light

Engine temperature warning – 17 percent

Child safety lock activated light

Child safety lock activated – 11 percent

Front air bag needs service light

Front air bag needs service – 10 percent

Open door warning light

Open door warning – 7 percent

Source: Insurance.com survey of 2,000 licensed drivers

When confidence level results are broken down by gender, men felt more confident than women:

Very confident

Men: 47 percent. Women: 28 percent.

Might know

Men: 28 percent. Women: 56 percent.

Probably wouldn't know

Men: 9 percent. Women: 15 percent.

Despite confusion over what warning lights mean, the majority of drivers surveyed seem happy with having a lot of lights. Eighty-two percent said they don't think their car has too many.

Traffic ahead

Insurance.com's survey also asked respondents about their preferences for warning lights for some theoretical situations. If  they existed, here’s how many people would want the extra light:

  • Traffic congestion ahead; choose alternate route: 24 percent
  • Tire tread below 2/32 depth, legal limit for safe driving: 19 percent
  • Speed trap ahead : 15 percent
  • Mouse or foreign object in engine: 10 percent
  • Time to rest, you've been driving too many hours without a break:  8 percent
  • Heavy load -- driver and passengers exceed recommended safe car weight limit: 7 percent
  • Noise level alert -- noise level in car has exceeded safe level for driving: 6 percent
  • Blood pressure too high for relaxed driving: 5 percent
  • Safe to eat -- notifies you that road conditions are safe for eating while driving: 3 percent
  • There's a McDonald’s within a half mile: 3 percent

Drivers in the survey were very confused about the information you can find in a vehicle identification number (VIN).  A VIN is a string of letters and numbers that contains coded forms of information about your car, right down to when it rolled off the assembly line. You can find out the vehicle's year, make, model, country of origin, assembly plant and more, but just 18 percent knew the information contained in a VIN.

When asked about PSI, drivers fared better.  Eighty-nine percent knew it stands for pounds per square inch, a measurement used for tire pressure, and that the recommended pressure is stamped on tire walls.

Ever wonder what that D2 shift option is really for? Seventy-one percent of respondents knew that it is used to manually decelerate; for instance, when climbing or descending steep hills. Women outscored men on the typical best use of D2 -- 75 percent of females correctly answered compared to 66 percent of males. Eight percent of men said you use D2 for parking lot driving; 4 percent of women thought so.

Be safe, pay less in car insurance

Knowing the warning signs for when your vehicle needs servicing is important for safe driving. Maintenance issues can lead to accidents, which in turn can bring higher car insurance rates.


Insurance.com surveyed 2,000 licensed drivers age 18 and older. Respondents were split evenly between males and females and distributed across age groups according to Census data on age distribution. The online-panel survey was fielded in October 2013.