It’s a beautiful day and you’re out enjoying every minute of it in your car. All of a sudden, you look down at your instrument panel and notice an orange light that says “check engine” or “service engine”. Is this a real problem? Is your engine about to seize, leaving you stranded in the middle of nowhere (that’s usually when it happens)? Well...

What does it mean?

The check engine light is part of your cars on board diagnostic system (OBD for short). It’s designed to let you know if something is not right with what seem like a gazillion systems that your cars computer constantly monitors. Although it shouldn’t be ignored, there are a number of things that you can do for peace of mind before you take it to a repair shop to have it checked out (yes, you eventually will need to do that).

“Should I pull over to the side of the road and call a cab?”

No, not necessarily. If your engine is running roughly then you should either pull over and park, or proceed to the nearest repair shop as soon as possible. A rough engine could mean you need major repairs, and continued driving could cause further damage. If everything seems normal, continue driving until you find a convenient spot to safely leave the road then park your car and...

Check your gas cap.

Really. Most vehicle fuel systems are “closed” and, therefore, if you forget to either tighten, or even screw on, your gas cap, it will trip a sensor and – bingo! – on comes the blasted light. Once you do this, many times the system will reset itself in a matter of miles and the light will turn off.

Check under the hood for moisture

Water has a wonderful way of shorting things out. With all the wires and sensors located in the engine compartment, it can cause havoc with all the electronic goodies located there.

Have it checked out

If the light remains on, take your car to a dealer or repair shop, where they can diagnose the problem. Your cars computer not only tells you when there is a problem, it will also record the problem in its innards (called a fault code). Repair shops have machines that can read and diagnose these codes and let you know what needs to be done to correct the problem. If the light goes out, mention it to your mechanic when your have your can in for an oil change. They can retrieve the information and let you know just what happened, so you can avoid the problem in the future.