Dash Lights: The Brake Light on Your Dashboard

Dashboard of a car on the road at night

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Your vehicle's dash is full of lights. Some of them make perfect sense to you. Others may not seem to do anything. When you turn your ignition switch to the "on" position without actually starting the engine, most of the lights on your dash illuminate at once. This is a test mode to show you that all of the lights are working, not that you'd really notice if one of them didn't light up, but your car's monitoring systems might. Some of these lights can indicate serious problems, so you'll want to be sure you pay attention any time one of them pops up, especially if you're driving. 

What Is the Brake Light?

If you engage your emergency brake, you'll notice a light on the dashboard, usually red in color, that says "BRAKE" or "PARK." This light will give you a heads up if you forget to release the brake before you take off. You'd think that you would notice something as major as a brake holding you back as you begin to drive, but as around and you'll find plenty of drivers who have driven blocks with their emergency brakes on. Sometimes they don't notice until the smell of burning brake liner drifts into their car.

This light can be a very good thing. If you accidentally drive on your e-brake for a bit, it's not the end of the world. It causes premature wear of your parking brake shoes and can generate a lot of heat in the rear wheels, but rarely will it lead to an actual repair. Just a nice forehead slap, self-imposed. But what if your emergency brake is off and you still see the light?

When There Is a Problem

If your dashboard "BRAKE" light is on when your emergency brake is off, it usually means you need to add brake fluid. This is not something you should ignore, as brake fluid is what makes your brakes actually work, and you don't want to run low or run out. Check the level and add some brake fluid as needed. If the light still doesn't go away, you should probably take your car in to have the brake system properly diagnosed. Also, keep in mind that it can be normal for a small amount of fluid to be lost in your brake system -- or any system in your car -- over a period of time, but if you are regularly adding brake fluid to your system, you may have a leak that needs to be addressed.

As your brake pads wear out, the fluid level will drop slightly as it takes a little more fluid to compress the piston in your brake caliper. Even small brake fluid leaks need to be dealt with. Small leaks can sometimes turn to big leaks, which can be dangerous. Not only do they leak fluid, but they allow air, and sometimes dirt and oil, to enter the brake system, which can further reduce the effectiveness of your brakes. This is why most mechanics recommend fully bleeding the brake system after any type of brake repair, even if it's very minor.