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Have you ever been driving down the road only to have a light come on in your car’s instrument panel? While that panel that sits in front of you plays host to a number of informative lights, the most notorious (and important) one is the “check engine” light. But what should you do when it illuminates randomly?

What does the check engine light mean?

The check engine light is part of your car’s diagnostic system and it illuminates whenever there is an issue with the car’s electrical or mechanical system. While it is just a single light, it can mean a multitude of problems; from a loose gas cap to a misfire in the engine and everything in between. In some cars, this light can be accompanied by a message in the instrument panel that says “service engine soon” or “check powertrain.”

While a check engine light doesn’t necessarily mean that you need to pull over to the side of the road immediately and call a tow truck, it does mean that you get the issue checked out as soon as possible.

Check Engine Light on a Volkswagen
Check Engine Light on a Volkswagen | Wikimedia Commons

How do you find out what the light means?

Since that one all-important light could mean a number of different issues, it’s important to pull the codes from the car’s computer to see what the problem is. In addition to turning on the check engine light, your car’s onboard computer also stores a code, or codes, that can point you or a mechanic to the proper area of the engine that needs checking.

According to Consumer Reports, if the light stays on steadily, then the problem is most likely not an emergency. But if it’s blinking, then that could mean that your car is in need of immediate attention. In either case, do your best not to ignore it and get it checked out.

Mechanics Larry Anderson, right, and Brandon Engler change the oil in a car.
Mechanics Larry Anderson, right, and Brandon Engler change the oil in a car. | Sandy Huffaker/Bloomberg News.

Checking the engine codes

In order to check the engine code that is stored in the computer, you can either purchase or rent an OBD (On-Board Diagnostic) code reader from your local auto parts store and plug it in yourself to retrieve the codes or have a mechanic do it for you.

Here is a list of help tips for the next time your check engine light comes on:

  • Check your instrument panel for any other warning lights: If the check engine light is on due to low oil pressure, for example, then the oil pressure light might come on too. Also, check the car’s gauges to see if there are any other glaring issues.
  • Tighten the gas cap: A loose gas cap can trigger a check engine light. So be sure to tighten it completely. Just remember that it could take a couple of trips for the light to turn off.
  • Slow the car down and pull over, if needed: If you see any visible issues like smoke coming out of the hood, or if the check engine light is blinking, then reduce the car’s speed or pull it over to prevent any more damage.

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