Driving tests

Brake warning lights explained

If there’s a problem with your brakes you’ll see a warning light on your dashboard, but there are different warning lights for different problems and different brakes. When you turn on the car’s ignition the computer will go through a series of checks so you may see some of these lights initially, then they’ll go off. If they stay on (with the exception of the handbrake if you’ve got the handbrake on), you’ll need to have it checked.

Not all vehicles will have all of the following lights and the lights on your vehicle might have a slightly different design.

Handbrake warning light

This light illuminates when you put the handbrake on. If this light is on, don’t start driving; ignoring it for a long time could eventually set fire to the rear brakes as they overheat.

A handbrake can become stuck on in very cold weather but this is uncommon. Modern vehicles have a button to activate the handbrake and most deactivate automatically when you put the car in gear so the days of having to remember to cancel your handbrake are numbered.

If your handbrake warning light flickers while you are driving there’s a loose connection which is fairly easy to repair when you get your car serviced.

Press brake

This isn’t a warning light, it’s an instruction to press the brake pedal. If it comes on while driving, it’s likely the light has malfunctioned. It’s usually illuminated when you need to press the brake pedal to put the car into gear, i.e. you’re in P (park) in an automatic car and to move to R or D you need to press the brake pedal, or to start the car when you have a push-button start.

Brake light warning

If your brake lights have failed you might see this warning light. This is dangerous for you because it means that vehicles following you don’t know that you’re braking until they see your vehicle slowing down.

If you are towing a trailer and one of the lights fails, this light is unlikely to illuminate.

ABS warning light

ABS, or anti-lock braking system, prevents your brakes from locking the wheels when you apply a lot of pressure to the brake pedal. Read how ABS works. If there is a problem with any of the sensors this warning light will display. It doesn’t mean your brakes have stopped working, but it does mean your ABS has stopped working and therefore you should have it checked out immediately.

Brake hydraulics warning light

Your car will have brake fluid and that provides the hydraulic pressure to operate the brakes when you press the pedal. If this fluid is low your brakes will lose power. If this light comes on you must stop and check your brakes immediately because they are likely to have very little or no power if not now, then within a few kilometres. If it flickers this could mean you are on the cusp of being low in brake fluid.

To check the brake fluid, look for a reservoir under the bonnet that looks like this.

Brake pad warning light

Some luxury cars warn when the brake pads need replacing. You don’t need to change the pads immediately, but they won’t have much life left in them.

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Darren is a member of the Institute of Advanced Motorists and the NZ Motoring Writers' Guild

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