Malfunction Indicator Lamp (Step by Step Solved!)

Malfunction Indicator Lamp

Steve, do you know what to do when malfunction indicator light illuminates? This is one of the questions my readers ask a lot. Well, I´ve got you covered.

It may not seem like it, but one of the most important parts of your vehicle is the malfunction indicator lamp.

it’s just a small tamp but, if it illuminates, it tells you that you have some problems with your vehicle. Problems that you should be rectifying quite quickly.

On this page, we want to tell you what that malfunction indicator lamp means. We want to tell you how much it may cost to clear it, and, perhaps more importantly, whether you should be driving with it on. Let’s jump in. 

What Is a Malfunction Indicator Lamp?

You may sometimes see the malfunction indicator lamp referred to as a ‘check engine light’.

Now, when you are driving your vehicle, there is a whole lot going on. It is an incredibly complicated piece of machinery, after all. Deep inside your vehicle there will be a computer. This computer is constantly monitoring your vehicle for any issues.

Each time an issue occurs, the computer will log that issue. If that issue happens quite frequently, then you will be informed of that issue.

Unfortunately, a vehicle cannot tell you specifically what an issue is. However, it can warn you that there is an issue with your vehicle. How does it do this? Well, it displays the malfunction indicator lamp.

That small lamp on your dashboard. If your vehicle has a problem, that lamp will light up. It is telling you that you need to get to a garage so they can check your vehicle over. 

As we said, the malfunction indicator lamp cannot tell you the specific issue with your vehicle. There are ways to do this, although these methods are not directly accessible to the average vehicle owner. You would need something called an OBD2 scanner.

This is a gadget that plugs into the vehicle’s onboard computer. It will then ‘read’ the computer and give you an error code.

This error code tells you the exact problem with the vehicle. Once the problem has been fixed, the light can be turned off. 

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Can I Drive With The Malfunction Indicator Lamp On?

It depends, although a lot will depend on why that malfunction indicator lamp is being switched on which, as we said in the previous section, is going to be impossible to work out unless you have a specific device for determining what that error code actually means.

So, you can drive your vehicle if you have a malfunction indicator lamp on. However, that lamp is coming on for a reason. You just don’t know what it is yet. This means that you will want to make a beeline for a mechanic as soon as you possibly can.

Preferably within the next day or so, just so they can have a quick look over what is wrong with your vehicle and fix the issue.

It is worth noting that many of the issues that can cause a malfunction indicator lamp to come on will be temporary.

If you see the malfunction lamp clearing itself every so often, then this means that the problem is quite sporadic.

It is much better to drive a vehicle with a sporadic issue than it is to drive a vehicle that has a light constantly on. Although, once again, you still want to make a beeline for the garage as soon as possible.

This is the only way that you can get the problem fixed quickly.

Finally, we want to point out that most of the issues that can cause a light to come on are not massively serious. They probably aren’t something that will kill your vehicle within the next few days, or even the next few weeks.

They are something to take note of, otherwise your vehicle wouldn’t tell you that there is a problem there. However, your vehicle isn’t in imminent danger of breaking down, or at least it shouldn’t be.

The longer you leave that indicator lamp to be turned on, the more chance you will start running into issues with the vehicle, though. 

Can You Turn Off a Malfunction Indicator Light?

You can turn off a malfunction indicator light, but it isn’t going to be easy.

The job of the malfunction indicator lamp is to tell you that you have a problem with your vehicle. As long as that problem with your vehicle remains, then the malfunction indicator light is going to stay on.

The only way to permanently clear a malfunction indicator lamp is to fix the problem.

As we said, this means that you will need to head to a garage and have them diagnose what the issue is. The cost of which can vary. Although, most problems tend to be affordable if you have them dealt with pretty quickly. 

If you have an OBD2 scanner, then you could turn off the malfunction indicator light yourself. However, it isn’t going to be a permanent solution.

As soon as that problem recurs in your vehicle, then the light will just come back on.

Remember, there is absolutely no situation where that light can be turned off permanently unless you have 100% fixed the problem.

How Much Does It Cost To Clear a Check Engine Light?

This is akin to asking how long a piece of string is. The check engine light could indicate any number of issues in your vehicle. Some could cost a few dollars to deal with, and others could cost hundreds to fix.

The only way to find out exactly how much a vehicle repair would cost is to head to your local garage.

If you want a rough idea (or wish to know whether you can fix the problem yourself), then you can pick up a cheap OBD2 scanner. A basic one should cost you around $40 (sometimes they are a bit cheaper than this).

Following the instructions of the OBD2 scanner and your vehicle, you can plug it into your system. You can then find out the error code for the problem that is tripping the check engine light.

This error code can then be checked against a database of error codes for your vehicle to tell you specifically what the problem is.

If you are well-versed in vehicle repair, then many of the issues that cause the check engine light to come on will be easy to fix yourself, which could save you hundreds of dollars. However, of course, you shouldn’t just poke around your vehicle in the hope of getting lucky and finding out whatever is causing that issue.

You need to use that OBD2 scanner and, if you don’t already have one of those, then head to the garage for a diagnostic. 

Can a Weak Battery Cause a Check Engine Light?

Yes. As we said, there are a few things that can cause a check engine light to come on. Any issue that has an impact on the way the engine functions will cause that light to flicker. Battery issues could be one of them.

If the components that help to keep your vehicle’s engine ticking along aren’t getting enough power, then the check engine light could come on. Not having enough power could be down to a variety of issues.

This includes damaged electrical wiring and, of course, a battery that is dying or not charged properly. Remember, a vehicle’s battery has been designed to last just 3 to 4 years. Once it hits this mark, then the check engine light will likely come on.

Once again, the problem comes with you not knowing specifically what the issue is. There are a variety of ways to test whether your battery is functioning e.g. a multimeter, but it is not the only test.

If you believe your car battery has started to go flat, then you can leave it on charge overnight and see if that corrects the issue. If it doesn’t, then you will want to head to the garage and get the problem properly diagnosed.

We do want to point out that battery issues in a vehicle are incredibly rare. If you have a flat battery, there will likely be an indicator on your dashboard that tells you that the battery is starting to go flat (a separate battery indicator).

If that doesn’t come on, then it is much more likely that there is another issue at play in your engine and this is what will need to be fixed.

Although, it still doesn’t harm to check whether the battery is the problem by giving it a quick charge. 


If your malfunction indicator lamp comes on, then it means that you have a problem with the engine in your vehicle, or at least one of the systems that directly connects to the engine.

Without having an OBD2 scanner, it is impossible to work out what the problem is yourself. So, if that lamp comes on, we suggest that you head to your local garage as soon as possible.

The cost of repair could range anywhere from tens of dollars to hundreds of dollars. 



Steve P.

Steve is an automotive technician, technical writer, and Managing Editor. He has held a lifelong passion for cars, with a particular interest in cars like the Buick Riviera. Steve is based in Boise, Idaho.

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