Ah, yes, the check engine light. Source of many jokes and almost as many misunderstandings! Ignore it? Stop driving immediately? What do I do?
The most important thing you need to know is that the “check engine light” communicates information about a car’s emissions control and engine management systems. It will not tell you if your tires are dangerously worn, if your brakes are about to fail, if a component of your suspension is *thisclose* to breaking and causing you to lose control of your car.
Over my years answering car questions, I have encountered people who feel that as long as the check-engine light (or CEL, as it’s sometimes referred to) is not on, their car is safe to drive. This is a false assumption, as most of the maintenance issues which may make a car un-safe to drive will not trigger the check engine light!
Unless the check engine light is flashing or blinking (which is serious) a check-engine light is nothing to be immediately alarmed about, but it does need attention soon. If the car is still driving and acting normally despite the check engine light, you can finish your errands and go the family baseball game this weekend. Just remember to call and schedule a shop visit for sometime next week.
If, however, your check engine light is flashing, you need to stop driving the car as soon as you can do so safely. A flashing or blinking light means there’s a serious issue in the car’s emissions, engine controls, or transmission and damage can occur if you continue to drive. Pull over and stop driving as soon as possible! You may need a tow.
In short: blinking light is serious business; steady light needs attention soon but isn’t an immediate emergency.
And remember! The really scary and dangerous maintenance concerns your car may develop likely won’t trip your check-engine light at all, so keep up with regular brake inspections, oil changes, and suspension, steering, and tire maintenance even if your check engine light never lights up!