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My Check Engine Light Is On; Can I Still Drive My Car?



We’ve all been there before: You’re driving down the road, just trying to get where you’re going, when you hear a ding and look down: the dreaded check engine light has come on. You pull over to the shoulder, put on your flashers, and try to figure out what to do next. Can you make it where you’re going? Should you call for a tow, or is it safe to keep driving?

While a check engine light is definitely not a good sign and needs attention as soon as possible, it doesn’t always mean the car is undrivable until it’s fixed. Leale’s Transmission & Auto Service has the facts on what commonly causes the light to come on—and if it’s still safe to drive your car.

Common causes of check engine light

The check engine light coming on can be something as simple as a loose gas cap or something as serious as the engine misfiring. One of the most common causes of the check engine light coming on is simply that your gas tank cap isn’t tightened all the way, especially if you’ve just refueled recently and have a car model that doesn’t have a light specifically to let you know the cap isn’t on. The easiest way to check this, of course, is to get out and check the lid on your gas tank. If it’s loose, tighten it securely, then hop back in and see if the light has gone out.

If it’s still on, it could be a sensor going out. Oxygen sensors or mass airflow sensors can go out and cause the check engine light to come on. The oxygen sensors measure the amount of unburned O2 in your engine system, and the airflow sensor measures the airflow coming into your engine to gauge how much fuel is needed to run your car.

Another common reason for the check engine light to ding is if your catalytic converter goes out. This is usually accompanied by a smell, like sulfur or rotten eggs. Your catalytic converter transforms carbon monoxide into carbon dioxide, which is better for the environment.

The final common cause for your check engine light’s appearance is faulty spark plugs or plug wiring. Spark plugs are what ignite the air and fuel in your engine’s combustion chamber.

The only sure way to check for these issues, besides the gas cap, is to take your car to a qualified technician who can scan the codes and diagnose the problem.

So…Can I still drive it or not?

If your check engine light is steady and not flashing and your car is running smoothly without a noticeable change in performance, you should be able to drive it for a short time, but you still need to get it to the shop as soon as possible. Even if the issue is as minor as a sensor going out, leaving the problem unresolved will lead to further damages, more costly repairs, reduced fuel economy, and strain on your car’s engine system—or worse. If your check engine light is flashing, however, this indicates a more serious problem, and you shouldn’t risk driving the car if you don’t absolutely have to. A mechanic shop like Leale’s Transmission & Auto Service can diagnose the issue and get your car back in working order—and the sooner you take it in, the less expensive the repair is likely to be.

Let Leale’s scan your check engine light.