Flickering Dash Lights and Headlights: Causes, Cures, and What to Do If You’re Experiencing It

A picture of a vehicle's dashboard.

Flickering dash lights and headlights are annoying — but they’re often the result of a deeper issue with your vehicle. Stressed? Don’t be. After reading this blog, you’ll learn about the top most common causes behind flickering dash lights and headlights, how to figure out which one is causing your flickering lights, and how routine maintenance can help you prevent this in the future.

Flickering Dash lights and Headlights: Should You Be Concerned?

In most cases, flickering dash lights and headlights are a sign there’s an issue with the electrical system in your vehicle. While frustrating, it doesn’t mean you’re in a constant state of danger — unless you consistently put off resolving the issue.

Of the list of potential electrical issues, a faulty or loose electrical connection is most often to blame for flickering dash lights, as it can disrupt the flow of power to the dashboard. In more severe cases, it could also indicate a malfunctioning alternator — something we touch on later in this blog — which is responsible for charging your vehicle’s battery and powering its electrical components. 

K&W Tire mechanic working on a vehicle.

The 6 Most Common Causes Behind Your Vehicle’s Flashing Lights

Okay, we’ve touched on a general overview of what exactly causes flickering dash lights and headlights, but how do you diagnose the root cause behind why your lights are flickering? We’ll explore five of the most common causes below.

1. Loose Wires

One of the most common causes of flickering dash lights is loose wires. Loose wires can cause an electrical short, which can cause the lights on your dashboard to constantly flicker. If you think the culprit may be loose wires, you’ll most likely need to drop your vehicle off for a mechanic to inspect, as addressing this issue yourself can be complicated. 

2. Loose Connections

Another potential cause of flickering lights is loose connections. Like any well-functioning machine, the electrical system in your vehicle relies on a variety of connections in order to function properly. 

Over time, these connections can become loose. If you notice that your dash lights are flickering, it’s a good idea to have a mechanic check the connections to see if they’re properly fitted.

3. Malfunctioning Switch

Another culprit is a malfunctioning switch. It’s possible your vehicle’s dashboard switch is loose, damaged, or corroded. If the switch is loose, it may need to be tightened. A damaged switch will need to be replaced. Some cleaning will be required if a switch is corroded.”

4. Bulbs That Need to Be Replaced

A common cause behind flickering dash lights and headlights is fading and burnt-out bulbs. Vehicle bulbs — like simple household light bulbs — will burn out over time.

Headlight bulbs are typically a simple enough replacement. However, replacing your vehicle’s dashboard light bulbs may require the skilled hand of a mechanic.

5. Weak Or Dying Battery

Perhaps the most prevalent cause behind flickering vehicle lights is a dying battery, which simply means your vehicle isn’t getting the juice it needs. This doesn’t just mean you run the risk of your vehicle leaving you stranded wherever you last parked. It also means your vehicle’s accessories — like lights and AC or heat — won’t work if you can’t even start your vehicle to power the engine.

While frustrating, flickering dash lights and headlights can serve as a warning sign you need to have your battery checked — saving you from even more frustration in the long run.

6. Bad Starter

The starter is the part of your vehicle that starts the ignition. Over time, it’s possible for your starter to wear out and break. Some of the warning signs it’s on its way out include:

  • Your vehicle’s engine won’t turn over
  • You smell smoke when trying to start your engine
  • The starter won’t spin the motor
  • You hear a grinding noise when trying to start the motor
  • Flickering dash lights while driving (and headlights)

There isn’t really a set time to replace a starter since no manufacturer knows when one will fail. Some starters last a lifetime, while others can fail prematurely — sometimes around the 100,000-mile mark. If you’re experiencing some of the issues referenced above, you’ll want to drop your vehicle off for a quick inspection. A bad starter just may be the root cause behind those pesky flickering dash lights and headlights.

Flickering Dash lights and Your Alternator

While technically number 7 in this list, this cause deserves its own section, as a faulty alternator is more serious than some of the other issues. Responsible for charging your vehicle’s battery, a failing alternator will do just the opposite — it will drain your vehicle’s battery life. 

If you suspect a failing alternator is a culprit, you should take your car to a mechanic and have them test it as soon as possible. A failed alternator can result in your vehicle not starting and you getting stuck on your way to somewhere important. Other signs of a faulty alternator include:

  • Battery light on dash flickering
  • Accessories (like AC and heat) operating slowly or not working properly
  • Difficulty starting your vehicle
  • Frequently occurred stalling
  • Whining or grumbling noises
  • A pervading odor of burnt rubber
A young man looking under the hood of his vehicle.

Flickering Dash lights and Headlights Checklist

If you want to see if you can diagnose the problem yourself before having to go to your local auto shop, here’s a simple list to help you out:

  1. Check headlights and dashboard lights (if you know how) and make sure they’re securely in place and not broken. 
  1. Check your vehicle’s fuse box for any blown fuses related to dash lights (your vehicle’s owner’s manual will help you with this).
  1. Test your vehicle’s battery and alternator with a multimeter.

Following these steps should help you solve the mystery surrounding your vehicle’s flickering lights. However, if all else fails, it’s time to take your car to a professional mechanic to ensure all wiring is in proper working order. Additionally, a mechanic will help you get a new alternator or battery, should that be the issue.

The most important thing to remember when your dash lights and headlights are flickering is to act quickly. Even if it ends up being a minor issue, it’s better to make sure you’re driving safely than it is to ignore the issue and put it off until later.

How Routine Maintenance Can Help You Save Money and Boost Resale Value

Routine maintenance — typically around every 5,000 to 10,000 miles — can save you a lot of money in the long run. Maintenance keeps your vehicle running smoothly and safely, and helps you spot the start of issues before they manifest into something bigger. 

For instance, a routine checkup in the future could help you avoid flickering dash lights and headlights as your mechanic will be able to spot the first signs of any oncoming issues.

Additionally, having detailed service records when it comes time to sell or trade your vehicle can help boost its value — meaning more money for you when you’re looking to get a new vehicle.

Is your vehicle acting up? Schedule an appointment with your local K&W store today and get back to driving with confidence.