Car Care Tips

Tips to keep your car on the road.

Safety August 29, 2018

Is it Safe to Drive Your Car With the Check Engine Light On?

Is it safe to drive a car with the check engine light on?

The symbols and notification lights on the dashboard of your car are, for the most part, not optional. Is it safe to drive your car with the check engine light on? The short answer is, it depends.

Maybe you have a story or two in your back pocket about a time when the check engine light came on mysteriously and then disappeared with no other symptoms. But as the heartbeat of your car, it’s important to give your engine the attention it needs when it’s alerting you to a potential issue.

Your car has warning lights for a reason, and they shouldn’t ever go unnoticed. But in an effort to not be alarmists either, we’ll breakdown the potential scenarios so you can be an educated driver and understand the best next step to take if your check engine light comes on.

Read: What All the Symbols on Your Dashboard Mean

What Your Check Engine Light Could Be Telling You

What’s definitely not safe to do is panic when you see your check engine light come on. It’s important to remain calm and assess the situation to determine your next step. It’s best to pull over to a safe area to walk through this quick assessment. Once pulled over, ask yourself these questions to determine if it is safe to drive your car with the check engine light on.

  • Did I recently pump gas? A loose gas cap can trigger your check engine light. Check to see if your gas cap is loose as the first troubleshooting step.
  • Did the car jolt or vibrate? This could be your spark plugs. If your car is making odd physical movements making it difficult to drive, it’s best to call for a tow truck. From there, schedule an appointment for repair as soon as possible.
  • Did you hear any strange noises as the light came on? This, along with jolting, is a sign you should stop driving and schedule repair as soon as possible.
  • Is the light flashing? In many vehicles, there are two types of check engine lights—a solid light and a flashing light. A flashing light could mean a more serious problem like an overheating engine or engine misfire, sometimes causing irreversible damage. You shouldn’t drive further if this is the case.
  • Does your check engine light have different color options? Be familiar with your vehicle. Some cars have a yellow check engine light that indicates a problem should be addressed soon, and a red check engine light to indicate that you need to pull over immediately.

The most important thing to do is not panic, but perform a brief assessment to determine if you should continue driving. If the way the car drives didn’t change, the light isn’t flashing, and you don’t notice any sounds or smells, you can continue driving a moderate distance (preferably back home or to your local Virginia Tire & Auto). Make sure to schedule an appointment to get the light checked and the problem repaired as soon as possible.

Safety Risks When Driving With a Check Engine Light On

A serious engine issue can make you a hazard on the road.

While less common, it’s possible that your check engine light came on because your engine is overheating or misfiring. Misfires can be spark-related, fuel-related, or mechanical in nature. At the very least, misfires can impact your mileage and ability to accelerate. If this is an issue, you could be a hazard on a busy road or a steep incline. Even more dangerous, a repeated engine misfiring issue can cause damage to your catalytic converter, cause your car to vibrate, and even backfire.

An overheating car can escalate quickly.

If your car begins overheating, this can escalate to a potentially dangerous situation for you and those in your car, as well as others on the road. It’s always important not to panic, but to pull over as soon as possible to a safe area and turn off the vehicle.

Read: What Happens When a Car Overheats?

What happens to your car when you drive with your check engine light on?

Depending on the reason for the check engine light, sometimes no further damage will happen to your vehicle if you complete your trip  before scheduling maintenance. This is especially true if it ended up just being a loose gas cap. But if your vehicle is experiencing some of the other common reasons for a check engine light to come on, you could be worsening the damage and increasing your repair bill.

    • Mileage deficiencies: If your check engine light was triggered by your oxygen sensor, or your mass airflow sensor (MAF), you can experience decreased gas mileage over time. This is similar to driving your car with too-low tire pressure.
    • Emissions: That oxygen sensor and mass airflow sensor (MAF) can also increase your car’s emissions. Similar to the mileage, you may not immediately notice it. But in the state of Virginia, it’s not wise to exceed your emission standards.
    • Spark plug damage: If your spark plugs triggered the sensor, it’s important to prevent further damage and get them replaced as soon as possible. But if they weren’t already to blame, by ignoring other problems, they could be the ones to suffer.
    • Catalytic converter: Fingers crossed this didn’t trigger your check engine light, but it can absolutely be on the receiving end of a domino effect if items go unchecked. Issues with your catalytic converter can be costly and even cause irreversible damage to your car.

Don’t Ignore the Warnings

Now that you’re armed with more knowledge and troubleshooting tactics, you be the judge. Is it safe to drive your car with the check engine light on? If you’ve walked through the troubleshooting techniques we’ve outlined, then yes, you should head home if you’re not already heading that way and then schedule an appointment.

At Virginia Tire & Auto, we want to provide you with the right car knowledge so you can be an informed driver and car owner. If your check engine light comes on, stop in one of our 17 locations to talk with one of our professional mechanics or schedule an appointment online to get your vehicle serviced.

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