Maybe Idiot Lights Aren’t So Idiotic…

By Eric Peters, Automotive Columnist

The other day, our truck overheated because most of the engine coolant seeped out through a leaky hose. But my wife did not notice it immediately. She just happened to glance down at the instrument cluster and saw the temperature gauge needle was pegged at the “H” side of the scale.

Luckily for the truck — and our bank account — she happened to notice this before any damage was done. But it could just as easily have gone the other way (badly) had she not happened to look at the instrument cluster and failed to notice the abnormal gauge reading in time.

This is the problem with gauges: You have to be paying attention to them!

The truth of it is, though, that people sometimes don’t. And that can be very bad news for your car (and your wallet).

It wasn’t too long ago that — for the most part — only sporty/performance-type cars came equipped with a full array of gauges to monitor engine functions like oil pressure, water temperature and voltage.

Other cars — most cars — came with a speedometer and a fuel gauge, with warning lights for everything else.

The reasoning went that the relative handful of people who bought sporty/performance-type cars (in those days) tended to be more actively involved in their driving and thus, monitored the condition of their cars as they drove. In competition (such as weekend club racing, for example) it is essential to know exactly how hot the engine is running, what the oil pressure is at all times — and so on.

Hence, the gauges.

And because the typical sport-enthusiast driver tended to frequently scan his car’s gauges, the gauges were extremely useful to have.

Warning lights, on the other hand, were made fun of as “idiot lights.”

If a car had warning lights but not gauges, it was considered most un-hip indeed. So, over the past 20-something years, almost every car on the road has become “sporty” — and even minivans now have gauges rather than warning lights.

The problem is that many of the drivers driving these now-sporty cars aren’t so “sporty” themselves. They don’t frequently scan the gauges — and would probably be better served by warning lights, un-hip though they may be.

Or at least, by having warning lights in addition to the gauges, as a back-up.

Even better yet, by a buzzer and a light that both go off as soon as the car’s engine gets too hot or the oil pressure drops below a safe level. The gauges could be left in place for the sporty look they give the dashboard. But the addition of a small flashing red LED light within each gauge — and a buzzer — could save people a lot of trouble.

And they’d be a lot more useful than the aggravating and functionally useless seat belt buzzers and lights that now come annoyingly standard in nearly every new car made.

Some new cars even have buzzers that come on when the car is put in reverse — but give their drivers no real warning if the engine’s about to spit its pistons through the hood because of overheating or no oil pressure.

Someone should call this to the attention of the powers that be. I’d argue that avoiding a grenaded engine is much more important than pestering drivers to buckle up! the microsecond they sit down in the car.

While we’re waiting for the automakers to see the light — and install lights (and buzzers to make sure people notice overheating engines, etc.) in new cars, make it a point to pay attention to your car’s gauges as you drive.

Because they wont do you any good if you don’t.


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