BMW warning lights – what they mean and what do you need to do

Not sure what that yellow flashing symbol on your BMW dashboard means? Read our guide to find out what each warning light means and what you should do if they light up. 

Modern BMW cars – including popular models like the 3 Series, the X3 and the 1 Series – are filled with lots of sensors that monitor how each system in the car is behaving. The lights on the dashboard display which systems are in use and highlight when one of those systems is not working as it should.

The lights on a BMW dashboard follow a traffic light colour system:

  • Green: the system is working correctly or is currently in use
  • Yellow: something is not working correctly - take extra care and check it out as soon as possible
  • Red: there is a serious, and potentially dangerous problem - stop driving as soon as it is safe to do so

But what do all those different symbols mean? We’ve put together this guide to help you understand what the different yellow and red warning lights on your BMW dashboard mean, why they come on, how urgent the problem is and what you should do when you see them.

Brake System warning light

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The brakes are one of the most important safety features of your car, so it’s important to act immediately when you see this warning light.

On BMW cars, if the brake system warning light is yellow it means that the hill assist function has failed. This safety feature stops the car from rolling back when you start the car on an incline, by automatically holding the footbrake when you first release the parking brake.

If there is a fault with hill assist, take extra care when making any hill starts and get it checked as soon as you can. 

Can I still drive with my Brake System warning light on?

If the light is red and it remains on after you fully release the parking brake, or comes on when you’re driving, it may indicate that the brake fluid level is low. Unless you know how to check your brake fluid levels yourself, this will be one for the professionals. 

If the ABS (Anti-lock Brake System) warning light is also illuminated, this signals that the braking system has malfunctioned and your brakes may not work properly.

Pull over and stop as soon as it’s safe to do so – keep your speed low and avoid braking suddenly. Don’t risk driving when your brakes are not functioning properly: call for recovery.

If you need assistance you can call the RAC on 0330 159 1111, whether you are a member or not. 

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Brake Pad Replacement warning light

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If this light comes on, it means a sensor has detected that your brake pads are too thin. This warning light should come on before the brake pads become dangerously thin, so you have time to get them changed.

You should replace the brake pads as soon as you can though, as if they wear out completely it could be extremely dangerous.

For more information read our guide to brake pads.

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Anti-lock Brake System (ABS) warning light

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ABS is an important safety feature that really comes into play when you need to make an abrupt stop, or in difficult driving conditions like icy roads.

The ABS light will come on briefly to indicate when the system is in use, but if it stays on it may indicate a fault. If the ABS light comes on by itself you should still have normal, unassisted braking, so it's safe to continue your journey – but keep your distance, take extra care, and get it checked as soon as possible.

If it comes on with the brake warning light, it could indicate that the brake system is failing and you should stop straight away and call for recovery. 

For roadside assistance, you can call the RAC on 0330 159 1111, even if you’re not a member.

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Check engine warning light

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On BMW cars this could be called either the Engine Management Indicator or the Malfunction Indicator Lamp (MIL), but you’ll probably know it as the check engine light.

When the check engine warning light is illuminated, it’s often accompanied by tell-tale signs that the engine is not working properly, such as a lack of power or stuttering as you press the accelerator.

This light could indicate a number of faults, from minor issues like a broken electrical sensor, to a much larger mechanical issue, like a fault with your emission control system or catalytic converter.

How long can you drive with the check engine light on?

If the check engine light comes on, you should get it checked as soon as you can. By continuing to drive, you risk causing further, potentially irreparable damage to your engine. 

Use our search tool to find your nearest RAC approved garage.

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Coolant levels warning light

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Coolant fluid absorbs the heat from your engine and disperses it through the radiator to prevent your engine from overheating.

This yellow warning light will come on when coolant levels are running low, to remind you to top them up. 

Avoid making any long journeys without enough coolant: you should stop and top up as soon as possible, otherwise you risk causing serious damage to your car. Wait for the engine to cool down before topping up. If this light comes on often, get your car serviced to check there isn’t a leak somewhere.

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Engine Coolant Temperature warning light

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This light will come on when the engine is overheating. This could mean that coolant levels are running low, perhaps due to a leak in the system, or it could be a sign of a larger problem, like a head gasket failure.

If this light is red you should stop straight away, as without enough coolant your engine could get so hot that it effectively welds itself together, causing irreparable damage.

Stop and wait until the engine has cooled off before checking the gauge on the side of the coolant tank under the bonnet, topping up as required. Read our guide to checking your engine coolant.

While you’re under the bonnet, have a look to see if there are any obvious leaks. If you can’t see any and the light goes off after topping up, then you should be fine to continue your journey. If the light comes back on again after topping up, you should get it checked out to fix the underlying problem.

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Engine Oil Level / Pressure warning light

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The yellow oil warning light comes on when either the oil temperature gets too high, or the oil level or pressure is too low.

If the oil is not lubricating the engine effectively, it could lead to expensive or even irreparable engine damage, so it’s important to act quickly.

Can I still drive with my Engine Oil Level / Pressure warning light on?

When this light comes on you should stop as soon as possible and turn off the engine.

Have a look for any obvious oil leaks under the car, and then check the oil levels, topping up if necessary. If the oil levels are fine, then the oil pump may be faulty. In this case, call for recovery, as driving any further could damage the engine. 

Watch our video guide to checking your car’s engine oil.

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Change Engine Oil warning light

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Your car’s computer will turn on this yellow warning light to alert you that your engine oil is coming towards the end of its lifespan, and will need to be changed as soon as possible.

When you change your oil make sure you reset the computer so it can continue to monitor effectively – consult your owner’s manual to find out how to do this for your BMW model.  

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Battery Charging System warning light

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If this light comes on when you’re driving, it indicates that the battery is not charging.

This could be due to a problem with your car’s electrical system and it could have several causes, such as a faulty alternator, faulty battery, bad electrical connection or damaged cabling.

Can I still drive with my Battery Charging System warning light on?

Your car will run as normal until the battery is dead, but once it is drained nothing in your car will work – so get to a garage quickly before you run out of juice.

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Airbag warning light

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When this light goes red, it means that at least one element of the airbag safety system is not working correctly: either the airbag system itself; the front passenger occupant classification system (which detects the front passenger’s weight and position in order to safely deploy the airbag); or the seat belt pretensioner system, which tightens the belt in the event of a crash. 

Can I still drive with my airbag warning light on?

If the airbag system is not working properly, it may not go off in a crash – or in some cases it could even deploy unexpectedly and cause a crash.

Either way, the airbag system is an incredibly important safety feature of your car so if this light comes on, please get it checked out immediately.

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Dynamic Stability Control (DSC) warning light

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This warning light indicates a problem with traction control.

If it’s flashing, it means the DSC system is intervening – for example, if you’re driving on a slippery road. If the light stays on, it means the DSC system is not working properly.

The DSC light will light up with the word ‘OFF’ if the system has been deactivated, in which case you may have inadvertently turned it off. To check, try stopping and restarting the engine.

If the light remains on after restarting, get it checked at a garage, as the DSC system is an important safety feature.  

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Transmission Fault warning light

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This warning light may indicate a fault with the transmission – often that the transmission fluid temperature is higher than normal – or it could serve as a reminder that your transmission fluid levels are getting low and need to be topped up.

If you have the skills and confidence, you could check and top up the transmission fluid yourself but it’s wise to get any problems checked by a professional, as continuing to drive could cause more extensive damage and automatic transmissions can be expensive to replace.

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Tyre Pressure warning light

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Many BMW cars are now fitted with tyre pressure monitoring systems that will let you know when the pressure falls. This could happen over time or it could be because of a puncture.

Either way, low tyre pressure can cause unsafe driving conditions, so reduce your speed and try to avoid braking suddenly or making any violent steering manoeuvres.

Most petrol stations and garages will have an air compressor you can use to check your tyre pressure. Top up the air in the tyres according to the vehicle manufacturer specification in your owner's manual.

If you have a puncture, watch our video to learn how to change a tyre in 10 simple steps.

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Air Suspension fault warning light

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If this warning light comes on, you’ll probably notice that your BMW feels harder to handle, less stable, and it may be lower to the ground than normal. It could signal a leak in one of the inflatable bags that sit above the wheels and cushions your ride, or it could indicate a problem with the air compressor. 

Can I still drive with my Air Suspension fault warning light on?

The severity of the problem will impact on your ability to drive safely. If the handling is poor, you should stop as soon as it is safe to do so and call for roadside assistance.

Even if the handling is not adversely affected, without suspension the impact of any bumps or knocks will be transferred to the body of the car, and may cause considerable damage, so drive carefully to a garage to get it checked out as soon as you can.

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Steering Lock warning light

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The steering lock is an anti-theft device that prevents anyone who doesn’t have the keys from driving the car. It effectively locks the steering wheel in position if someone tries to move the wheel when the ignition is off.

A yellow warning light signifies that there’s a fault with the system that you should get checked out as soon as possible.

If the light goes red while you are driving, you need to stop immediately and carefully, and call for roadside assistance, as the steering wheel could potentially lock into position and cause a life-threatening situation. 

Whether you are a member or not, you can call the RAC on 0330 159 1111 for roadside assistance.

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Steering System (Integral Active Steering) warning light

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Integral Active Steering (IAS) is a feature on some BMW models that adapts the steering dynamically to different driving conditions – increasing the effort needed to steer at low speeds and reducing it at high speeds, while engaging the rear wheels to steer and increase stability. 

When this warning light comes on, you need to perform a test of the IAS system.

With the car parked and the engine running, turn your wheel all the way to the left and then all the way to the right, and repeat several times until the warning light turns off. If the warning light doesn’t go off, there may be a fault with the IAS system that you should get checked out as soon as you can.

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Diesel Particulate Filter (DPF) warning light

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If you have a diesel BMW, this light will come on if there is a problem with the Diesel Particulate Filter (DPF), which removes harmful soot from the exhaust gases to reduce emissions. It could indicate that the filter has become blocked with soot.

As well as releasing a plume of toxic black smoke every time you press the accelerator, driving with a blocked DPF could cause more serious damage to your car.

You should go to a garage to get it checked as soon as you can, as DPFs can be expensive to replace. 

Learn more about Diesel Particulate Filters and how to maintain them.

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Diesel Exhaust Fluid (DEF) warning light

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If this light turns yellow it means the diesel exhaust fluid level is low, which will eventually prevent your engine from starting.

You should go to get the levels topped up as soon as you can, as once the light turns red, the level has become so low that the engine won’t start again once turned off. 

If you need advice on topping up your DEF levels, read our guide to AdBlue®.

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Glow Plug warning light

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This light will normally turn on when your BMW diesel engine is warming up.

Wait until the light goes off before starting your car. If this light is flashing, it indicates that it’s not working properly and the glow plugs may need replacing.

Can I still drive with my glow plug warning light on?

Get it checked as soon as possible. A fault with the glow plugs may put the engine into safe mode to prevent any damage to the engine, so you may experience a noticeable drop in performance until the problem is fixed.

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Bulb Out warning light

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This warning light will come on to warn that one of your exterior lights is not working.

If the tail light is cracked and white light is showing through, you’ll need to get this changed immediately as you could get a penalty.

Either way you’ll want to get any broken bulbs replaced as soon as possible, as lights are a crucial safety feature of your car and it won’t pass its MOT without them.

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Fuel Cap warning light

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In order for the fuel system to work properly, it needs to be completely sealed from the outside.

This light will come on to warn you if the fuel cap is not properly secured, meaning that there is essentially a leak in the system. Pull over as soon as it is safe to do so and make sure the fuel cap is fully closed. It may take a while for the light to go off once you’ve continued driving. 

Can I still drive with my fuel cap warning light on?

If the light doesn’t go off in a day or two, check the fuel cap to see if there is any damage. If so you may have to get it replaced. 

If it looks fine, and is definitely secured properly, there may be a leak somewhere else in the system that is tricking the computer. Take your car in for a service to find out what’s going on.

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Start/Stop System warning light

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In modern BMWs the Start/Stop system automatically shuts the down engine temporarily when you’re stationary, to reduce fuel consumption and emissions. 

A fault in the system, indicated by this warning light, could have several causes. You’ll be fine to continue driving, but you should take your car to your dealer so that they can check the error code and identify the root of the problem. 

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Lane Departure warning light

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Many modern BMWs have a camera sensor on the front windshield that detects white and yellow lines on the road.

If you’re driving over 40mph and the sensor detects that the car is straying from the lane, without the indicators having been turned on, this warning light will come on and the steering wheel will vibrate. 

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Frontal Collision warning light

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The Frontal Collision warning system is a safety feature of some BMW cars that uses a sensor to scan the road ahead, measuring the distance and relative speed of the vehicles in front, so that it can warn you if you get too close.

It prepares the brakes for emergency braking if it senses that you’re in danger of collision, adding extra force to your brakes. If a crash is imminent – in which case the warning light will start flashing – the system will automatically apply the brakes and retract the seatbelts to brace you. 

Similarly, when you are driving at slower speeds – for example in a residential area – a red person warning light will alert you if you are in danger of hitting a pedestrian and prepare the brakes to help you react quicker. 

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Service Vehicle warning light

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The computers in modern BMWs will monitor how many miles you’ve driven since your last service, and automatically remind you to go for a service when you reach a specified number. 

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