What to do When Oil Light Comes On

All vehicles have at least one oil warning light, modern cars often have two. When considering what to do when the oil light comes on, you need to know what sort of light it is.

The Two Kinds of Oil Light

1 The ‘change oil’ light

Modern cars often have a warning light which comes on to indicate that it’s time to change the oil. The appearance of this varies across vehicle models. Sometimes the traditional red oil light comes on and off, with an additional display that informs you that your car is due for a service. There might be a separate indicator, maybe an illuminated orange spanner for instance. Your owner’s manual will include a complete explanation of all possible warning and indicator displays on your dashboard.

If your car is due for an oil change, get it done at your earliest possible convenience. Dirty oil won’t lubricate and protect the moving parts of the engine properly. Ultimately, ignoring the maintenance needs of your vehicle will result in parts failing before they needed to and it costs you more in the long run.

2 The low oil indicator

All cars have a warning light that indicates that oil isn’t circulating properly in the engine. This generally looks like an old-fashioned oil can, maybe with a few drops of oil coming from it. When you have an oil light flashing, it’s cause for concern and immediate action.
If the low oil indicator comes on when you’re driving, it means one of three things:

  • The oil level in your vehicle is low
  • The oil pump is not functioning properly
  • You have a faulty oil pressure sensor

What to do

Pull in at the first safe spot and switch off the engine. Even if the low oil pressure warning light comes on and off rather than staying constantly orange or red, this is not a signal to ignore.

If you’re on the motorway you should use the hard shoulder and put on your hazard lights. Assess whether you can safely make some basic checks in your current location. If you can’t, call for breakdown recovery.

Assuming that you are in a location where you can safely work on your car, the first thing to do is check the oil level. Pull the dipstick out, wipe it clean, reinsert it and check the level. If the level shows as low, top up. Allow a minute or so for the thick liquid to flow into the oil reserve then recheck.

Once the dipstick indicates that you now have an acceptable level of oil you can restart the engine. If the oil warning light doesn’t come on AND your vehicle isn’t making any abnormal noises you can drive on. Continue to listen to the engine, if it sounds wrong, pull in and call for assistance.

If the oil level is not the problem

If your oil pressure light is flashing or illuminated and there’s oil in the car you have a pump problem or a faulty sensor. Since running the engine with low oil pressure risks serious damage the correct thing to do is NOT to drive until the problem has been resolved. It’s better to be safe than sorry and the sensible course of action is to arrange to have your vehicle recovered.

Human nature being what it is, if the engine sounds fine and you’re only a short distance from your usual garage you may be tempted to drive there and get the problem checked out by your regular mechanic. You won’t be the first to do so, and you might get away with it. But do drive with caution and avoid taking any route where a breakdown will put yourself or others at risk.