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Drivers Struggle to Recognize Dashboard Warning Lights

Number of warning signals fine, but meanings are often unclear.

by on Dec.10, 2013

A recent survey of drivers by Insurance.com shows that many have no idea what these symbols mean or what they should do when they see them.

Car designers and engineers often fight for space on the prime piece of real estate in a car or truck: the instrument cluster. However, a recent survey suggests that the space they’re getting isn’t used well.

The Insurance.com study suggests the design effort that goes into designing the lights and signals found on the instrument hasn’t helped motorists and most motorists find the signals confusing and unintelligible.

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The website surveyed 2,000 drivers asking them to identify 10 common dashboard lights. The icons for partially closed doors, air bag problems and child safety lock activation were correctly identified more often than warning lights for tire pressure, brakes, low fuel and engine overheating.

The survey also found the vast majority of drivers – roughly 82% – don’t think cars have too many warning lights, but not everyone knows what they mean. In fact, 49% couldn’t figure out the tire pressure warning light and 46% could not decipher the meaning of brake system warning light.

Some other signals missed by participants:

  • 42% missed the signal that the cruise control was activated
  • 40% missed the signal nothing fog lights were on
  • 24% missed the electrical problem warning light
  • 17% missed the low-fuel and the engine temperature warning lights
  • 11% missed the child safety lock activation warning light
  • 10% missed the front air bag needs service warning light
  • 7% missed the open-door warning light

Also almost half of drivers indicated they would not know what to do if their car’s tire pressure or brake system warning light flashed, and nearly 20% of don’t know what the low-fuel light means, according to the survey.

“One has to question the effectiveness of warning lights, especially in cases where well over a third of drivers can’t guess what they mean,” said Michelle Megna, Insurance.com managing editor.

Respondents were asked to rank the level of confidence they had in knowing what various warning lights mean with “very confident,” “might know” and “probably wouldn’t know.”

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When asked how confident they would be in knowing what the lights meant without referring to their owner’s manual, just 37% of drivers said they were “very confident.” Nearly half (49%) said they “might know” and 12% admitted they “probably wouldn’t know.”

Men felt more confident than women by a 19-point margin: 47% of the men were confident they knew what the signals meant, while on 28% of the women felt the same. Nine percent of the men surveyed said they “probably wouldn’t know” what the signals meant, while 15% of the women said they probably wouldn’t know.

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“Despite all the advances in car technology, mysterious warning lights persist,” said Megna. “Maybe it’s time do something revolutionary, like use words instead of icons.”

As for that somewhat mysterious D2 on your shift options, 71% of the respondents knew that it is used to manually decelerate – for instance, when climbing or descending steep hills. However, in this instance more women knew its purpose than men: 75% to 66%. Eight percent of men said D2 was used parking lot driving while just 4% of women thought the same.

Insurance.com commissioned the survey of 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.

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2 Responses to “Drivers Struggle to Recognize Dashboard Warning Lights”

  1. Panmondiale says:

    “47% of the men were confident they knew what the signals meant.” My guess is that of those 47% who expressed confidence, half or fewer would actually be able to identify the meaning of the signal. It’s sort of like asking directions – men just don’t want to admit that they don’t know the answer, especially when it comes to things like cars.

  2. Jorge M. says:

    The symbol deal has gotten pretty absurd primarily because of so many electronic controls these days. Unfortunately when these controls malfunction, vehicle operators actually need to know how to drive and for most people that is something new to them…resulting in accidents or other issues.

    If you survey new car owners you will find that less than 10% of them have ever read their new vehicle Owner’s Manual so it’s no surprise they have no idea how their vehicle operates or what the indicated symbols actually mean. Most owners don’t even know what viscosity or type of oil is required to maintain their warranty.