What to Do when Your Dashboard Brake Warning Light Comes On in Your Car

For most of us, the car brake warning light flashing on the dashboard simply means the obvious: we forgot to disengage the hand or parking brake. But that car dashboard brake light can mean something far more serious so do not ignore it if it stays lit after you release the hand brake. Always consult your dashboard lights again even if you think you’ve solved the problem that caused a light to display.

The first place to check for information is your vehicle owner manual. A special section in it usually details exactly what warning lights may display and the typical causes for their appearance.

When the dashboard brake warning light stays on even after you release the hand brake, the problem can still be minor. For example, there may be a problem with the hand brake itself or even a fuse that communicates between the brake and your car’s electrical system.

But the car brake warning light can also signal an important problem that can relate to the safe operation of your car, truck, or SUV. Ignore it, and you bring greater trouble upon yourself in the form of an unsafe motor vehicle.

One cause for a brake warning light showing is low brake fluid. If it’s been awhile since you checked your brake fluid or you never have, then consult your owner manual again to learn where the brake fluid reservoir is located beneath your car hood. Indicators on the reservoir itself or a dipstick may let you check the fluid level quickly and with little mess. If you need to add brake fluid, check your manual again to be sure you get the correct type for your car, and then add the right amount to bring your level back to full (but not overfull).

If, however, you add brake fluid and notice that the brake warning light comes on again in a few days or a week, check the fluid level again. If the level is once again low, you probably have a leak somewhere. Get your vehicle to a trusted mechanic or garage immediately since low brake fluid level can cause your brakes to fail. This can happen quickly so do not wait.

But beyond the real issue of brake failure, a leak can leave brake fluid wherever you travel or park. Such a leak also has the potential to cause other problems for your car, truck, or SUV. For example, you could flood the whole brake system with brake fluid that can also make it very difficult for you to operate the car safely. I once had a small brake hose leak that, the very day it happened, left it almost impossible to get the brake to work because the brake lining was coated with leaky ooze. Likewise, you can ruin your brake drums or brake shoes in a way that will require full replacement which can become costly.

A leak can occur in many places throughout the brake system, including the master cylinder (very expensive), one or more hoses or the brake line(s), or in the drum brake wheel cylinder with drum-based brakes or the disc calipers with disc brakes. Only a trained mechanic can easily identify and repair such problems.

Beyond the matter of a leak, you could also have a brake system failure somewhere. Some vehicles, particularly those with antilock brake systems called ABS, have a second dashboard brake warning light just to alert you to more pressing problems. You normally see this come on for a moment when you first start the car, but then it should go out again.

If the ABS light does not go out, have your car checked immediately. Even if you don’t get outright brake failure because of this, the antilock braking system may turn itself off which can cause your brakes to work quick differently than you expect. This could mean your brakes may lockup on you in wet or difficult driving conditions which can lead you to lose control of your vehicle.

For safe operation and your own peace of mind, determine what type of brake warning light(s) you have and know what to do if you see the warning light(s) appear. Actually, you should be prepared for any of your dashboard warning lights to come on and what each means well before you ever see them.

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