Car Problems? Don’t Ignore the Signs

Not every car problem is serious, but none should be ignored. A little knowledge can prevent a minor issue from becoming a major expense.

You wouldn’t ignore changes in your health because you know that may lead to bigger problems. The same is true for your car. Paying attention to some common car warning signs can prevent a lot of trouble down the road.

Dashboard Warnings

Today’s onboard diagnostics are like having an electronic mechanic continuously checking your car and alerting you when something’s amiss. Your owner’s manual describes all the warning lights and what they mean. Take the time to read these descriptions. Getting to know your dashboard lights may save you from spending time on the side of the road.

Should You Keep Driving If You Get a Warning?

It depends on the light. Don’t ignore the check engine light, also known as the malfunction indicator light (MIL). If it’s solid and your vehicle is operating normally, it should be OK to drive until you can have the car scanned to determine the cause. But if the MIL is flashing, a severe misfire has occurred. Continuing to drive can damage the engine and even leave you stranded.

A battery warning light means your charging system is no longer working and your car will shut off once the battery runs down. An ABS warning light means your brakes will function fine as regular brakes, without the anti-lock function, but a red “BRAKE” warning could mean you’re dangerously low on fluid. Again, consult your manual to learn the reason for the light in question.

Tell the Shop

When you speak to a mechanic, let them know the conditions at the time the light came on (on acceleration, at low/high speed, while idling, etc.) and any symptoms you’ve noticed.


Car Leaking Mikhail Dmitriev/Getty Images

Your vehicle’s fluids perform vital functions. When they are low, it can result in major (read: expensive) problems.

At the first sign of drips in your driveway, check your engine oil, coolant, brake fluid, power steering fluid and transmission fluid. (Note that many modern cars have electric power steering with no fluid, and some have transmissions without a dipstick that require a technician to check the fluid level.)

Should You Keep Driving If You Have a Leak?

If it was just a few drips on the driveway and no fluids are low, then go right ahead. If the leak is steady and/or a fluid is really low, continuing to drive can cause damage and may even be dangerous. Low engine oil can cause catastrophic damage, and low brake fluid could result in nothing happening when you press the brake pedal!

Tell the Shop

Note where the spots on the ground were relative to your car (left front, middle, etc.). Also, note if you saw any smoke, if any fluids were low and if you topped off any fluids before you brought it in.


While some minor creaks and rattles are inevitable as a vehicle ages, anything out of the ordinary that occurs suddenly should be properly diagnosed.

A tinny, high-pitched rattle that goes away when you put the car in park may just be a loose heat shield. Banging over bumps could be a critical suspension component. A high-pitched squeal when first starting an engine is usually a loose or worn drive belt. A groaning noise while turning at low speeds could mean low power steering fluid. An engine suddenly getting loud is likely a break in the exhaust system.

Should You Keep Driving When You Hear Noises?

It depends. If you can determine it’s just a heat shield or you needed a little power steering fluid, then yes. But if you’re not sure what is causing the noise, it’s better to be safe than sorry.

Tell the Shop

Let the mechanic know when the noise first occurred and under what conditions. If the noise comes and goes, a test drive with your mechanic to point it out will speed up the diagnosis and repair.


Vibrations may be caused by everything from a rough running engine to a worn mechanical part.

A vibration felt in the pedal and/or steering wheel when braking is likely warped brake rotors. Worn drive axles and engine mounts can cause a vibration on acceleration. A vibration accompanied by a roaring noise that gets louder with speed, or when the vehicle turns to one side or another, is likely a wheel bearing that should be replaced as soon as possible.

Should You Keep Driving When You Feel a Vibration?

Again, it depends if you can determine the cause. A slight vibration in the brake pedal isn’t a dangerous condition, but an unknown vibration isn’t worth the risk.

Tell the Shop

Let the mechanic know when the vibration first occurred, such as after hitting a large pothole, and under what conditions it occurs. As with noises, if the problem is intermittent, a test drive with your mechanic will save time.


Did you know that you are a car expert? For your own daily driver, it’s true!

When you drive a vehicle every day, you get a feel for how it operates. You’ll know if your car isn’t pulling up hills the way it used to, is cranking longer than normal before starting, rides rougher, or is making a noise it never did before. All these things can be relayed to a competent mechanic to diagnose. And go on that test drive, so they know what you know before a wrench is ever turned.

One more thing: Sometimes drivers subconsciously compensate for problems. I have driven cars and noticed things like a pull to one side or a spongy brake pedal that the customer said they didn’t even notice. They were steering to one side or allowing more stopping distance without even realizing it.

So consider scheduling a yearly checkup with a trusted mechanic to catch any problems before they turn expensive — or worse, cause a breakdown or accident.

Randy Udavcak
Randy Udavcak is a Pennsylvania-based writer, instructor, and ASE Master Certified Automobile Technician with over 30 years of experience repairing and servicing a wide variety of cars and trucks. His friends and neighbors call him the Hooptie Whisperer for his ability to keep their well-used vehicles on the road.