Why is My Check Engine Light Flashing?

It’s early in the morning, on a Friday. You’re tired. You’re ready to get this last work day over with. So once you’re done feeding the dog, getting the kids on the bus, or whatever else is part of your morning routine, you hop into your car, start the ignition, and drive to work. But halfway there, something terrible happens.

First, the check engine light comes on—and anyone who has driven a car for a few years knows that the little orange light is never a good thing. It’s the automobile equivalent of the “Blue Screen of Death” that tormented Microsoft Windows users for generations. But this time, the orange light is different: for some reason, your check the engine light is flashing. As if the regular check engine light wasn’t scary enough, a flashing one is terrifying enough to cause even an experienced driver to crash into the side of the road, right then and there.

So, here’s the thing: a flashing light is every bit as scary as it seems. If the orange light is blinking, you need to stop driving now. But why is it flashing? As with anything in the world of car repairs, the answers aren’t always straightforward, and mechanics will charge you an arm and a leg just to diagnose the issue. However, a flashing check engine light is something that should ALWAYS be taken seriously. Let’s peek under the hood and see why.

What the Heck Does “Check Engine” Mean, Anyhow?

While a normal check engine light still hits you like a ton of bricks, it isn’t always so catastrophic. While it could indicate something serious, it can also be something as silly as a bad gas cap.

What we generally refer to as a “Check Engine” light is actually named a Malfunction Indicator Lamp, or MIL, though don’t expect anyone—including your mechanic—to ever call it as such. It wasn’t until 1996 that this feature, grim and important as it is, became standardized. Before then, car manufacturers had various different engine diagnostic alerts. However, 1996 was the birth of the OBD-II system, where all of them required to conform to a standard list of diagnostic trouble codes, or DTC. In order to get these codes, you can plug in an OBD-II reader in the specified spot, usually under the steering wheel.

Makes everything easy, right? Sort of. It still doesn’t explain why your check engine light is flashing.

Common Causes for a Flashing Check Engine Light

Okay, so here’s the bad news: if your check engine light is flashing, get serious. A flashing check engine light is a major warning sign. It’s not a gas cap, not a fluke. It’s the car equivalent of Paul Revere stampeding across your engine yelling, “The British are coming!.” Once the orange light starts blinking, you need to pull over fast, and sort through your options.

Without delving too deeply into car jargon, a blinking check engine light—I.E., anytime the light is flashing on and off, rather than holding steady—means that something is occurring in your car that could horribly damage your catalytic converter. Often, the blinking will be following by your car behaving strangely, breaking down, your car bursting into flames, or any number of other horrible situations. So stop driving, fast.

These catalytic converter-damaging conditions are caused by engine misfires, which is the car-speak way of saying that one or more of your engine’s cylinders aren’t firing up. The causes of such a condition range between an ignition system defect, an internal engine defect, or fuel system defect. The ignition system defect is the easiest of the three to fix, but none of them are all-too-pretty. In other words, this isn’t one of those issues you can procrastinate about. If you value your car, and don’t have thousands of dollars hanging out in your back pocket, think fast and be careful. At this point, every move matters.

How to Diagnose the Problem

Okay, so first lesson: if the check engine light is blinking, stop driving.

Second lesson? While you might be tempted to drive your car right to the shop, don’t do it quite yet. Yes, that’s where the car is going, but first, we recommend diagnosing the problem. Why? Because getting your car diagnosed at a mechanic is… well, kind of a ripoff. How much of one? According to Repair Pal, you’re going to be paying some guy between $88 and $111 bucks just to tell you the meaning behind a light.

On the other hand, you could make the diagnosis yourself, then bring the car to the mechanic, and let them fix your car instead of just charging you for a diagnosis.

While car diagnosis is often seen as something beyond the reach of the layman, don’t worry, because this is the 21st century, and innovative new solutions are rising up to make automobile diagnosis accessible to everyone. One of the best products for this is FIXD (read our review HERE), a handy little tool that you keep plugged into your OBD-II reader. Once the sensor is in, you just need to download the free FIXD app, and you’ll get push notifications on your phone which will explain your car’s issues in simple, easy-to-understand language. This way, you’ll have more control over your car’s repairs, when you do bring it in.

Now, What Do You Do After You’ve Diagnosed the Problem?

Well, if your buddy Ian is really, really great at cars…

Let’s face it, you knew what you had to do as soon as that light started blinking. Honestly, you probably shouldn’t even drive your car to the mechanic: you should get it towed there. If that sounds expensive to you, consider signing up for AAA, which will give you great deals on car towing.

However, understand that when it comes to a blinking check engine light, this isn’t something you can just put off for a later date. The flashing orange light is like your car’s final gasp of air before it gets plunged underwater. Heed its warning. Stop the car, diagnose the problem with a tool like FIXD, and get your car into the shop as soon as possible.