You’re driving down the road and glance down at the instrument panel. A light is on… the image of an engine. Your mind fills with dread as you envision the pile of money it’ll cost to repair the problem.

 Actually, having that check engine or service engine soon (SES) light come on may not mean a major repair expense is in your future. It could be an indication of a minor problem, such as your gas cap seal is cracked. It could also be an indication of an emission system problem which can cause poor fuel economy or a driveability issue.

 When this SES light is on solid, it is not a panic situation, however you should take your vehicle in for service in a timely manner.

 Another point of interest is that it is a diagnostic aid for more than just engine functions. You can expect to see an illuminated SES light if a fault is detected from other vehicle systems such as the transmission or the charging system.

 When this light comes on, it sets a code in the vehicle computer, making it easier and less costly for a technician to diagnose the problem. Using a scanner, the code will provide data that indicates the particular system that is malfunctioning. Then, the technician will go about determining which part in that system is the culprit.

 Depending on the condition, your vehicle may not display a check engine light when there is a malfunction, making it more difficult to diagnose because a code was not set in the computer.

 If the SES light is flashing, it is a warning that your vehicle needs immediate attention. It could mean that your vehicle has a misfire condition that could damage your expensive catalytic converter. Shutting off your vehicle as quickly as possible may save you from a budget busting repair.

 Continuing to drive a short distance could cost you dearly when that SES light is flashing. A small tow charge is well worth the price.

 Happy Motoring!

 Cary Lockwood of is an automotive consumer advocate,  Big Three engineering veteran and host of the “Calling All Cars” radio show heard in Phoenix on KXXT 1010 AM and KXEG 1280 AM. Cary serves on the Better Business Bureau’s Auto Repair Advisory Committee and has over 30 years in the auto industry. Ask Cary your automotive questions at


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