check engine light flashing on an Audi allroad

Is your check engine light flashing? You need a fix ASAP

If you have a check engine light flashing on your car’s dashboard, it’s an alert more serious than if your check engine light is continuously lit. The flashing light means your engine is likely misfiring and you need to fix it asap.

There’s a big difference between the two states of this little warning light. If you want to learn about what it means when your check engine light stays lit, check out this article. Today we’ll be focusing on what it means when the check engine light is blinking.

Can I drive my car with the check engine light blinking?

Can you? Yes.

Should you? No.

Here’s why. The longer you drive, the more damage will be done. And since your problem is most likely an engine misfire, fuel isn’t being properly burnt/ignited. This unspent fuel can pass into the exhaust system where it can (and will!) damage your catalytic converter and potentially cause damage and even possibly start a fire.

What is a catalytic converter? And why should I worry about damage to it?

picture of a catalytic converter under car

Your catalytic converter is basically a filter in your exhaust system. The exhaust from your car passes through it and is transformed to become less toxic before it is expelled into the air.  

There are  all kinds of chemical reactions going on inside of a catalytic converter when exhaust passes through it. If you want to geek out on the science behind how one works, here’s a good article over on the NAPA Know How blog – click here.

A “filter” can’t be all that expensive, right?

If you destroy your catalytic converter, you’re in for a hefty repair bill. This is one of the jobs where the part is the reason the job is so expensive. .A catalytic converter contains expensive metals like platinum and palladium that help with the chemical reaction inside of the part. At the time of writing this article, platinum is at about $1,200 per ounce and an ounce of palladium is about $2,800!

cartoon of a broken down car

Depending on the make and model of your car, a new catalytic converter can cost between $500 and $2,000 or more.

Do I need to stop driving right away if I have a check engine light flashing?

You should stop your car as soon as you safely can. I’m not a big fan of stopping on a highway or other busy road. So don’t do that. You should get off the next exit and find a safe parking lot to stop in.

But what if I’m just a few miles from home?

If you’re a short distance away from your home or your car repair shop of choice, you will likely be OK if you drive your car directly there. 

But if you’re hours away from home, it’s probably best if you just call a tow truck. Use that AAA towing protection you’ve been paying for. And if you don’t have AAA or other roadside assistance, a tow isn’t all that expensive. You probably won’t pay more than a couple hundred bucks.

What if my check engine light flashes briefly then shuts off?

You should still have it looked at asap. Different cars behave differently and you don’t want to risk damaging your car. If the light is no longer on or flashing, there’s a good chance the on-board computer system has logged an error code from when it was flashing. Find out what’s going on inside your car and learn if it needs immediate attention.

So why is my engine misfiring?

Generally there’s three reasons why your engine will misfire and make the check engine light flash. Let’s take a look at each reason in order from most common (and least expensive to fix) to least common (and most expensive to fix).

Ignition problem

This is the most common reason for engine misfires. It can be as simple as a bad spark plug. Spark plugs do wear out and need to be replaced. Replacing spark plugs is a pretty easy job and can generally be completed in about an hour. If you are mechanically inclined, it’s an easy DIY project.

Other possible ignition problems could be a bad spark plug wire or bad ignition coil.

Fuel system problem

The next level reason for an engine misfire is a problem with your fuel system. Your fuel and air mixture may be wrong.This could be happening because your fuel injectors are clogged. Or maybe your fuel filter is clogged. Or you might have a bad fuel pump. Fuel system problems will likely cost a bit more to repair.

Compression problems

Compression problems are the most expensive problems to repair. The compression inside of your cylinders might have a leak. This can cause a misfire. Possible reasons for this happening are a blown head gasket, bad valves, or even a cracked piston…. All problems that will be expensive to repair. But keep in mind, these are less common issues, especially if you’ve been good about properly maintaining your car’s engine.

Can my flashing light be something other than a misfire?

I fact checked several vehicle manufacturers and all the ones I looked at stated that a check engine light flashing usually means a misfire. The car brands I fact checked are: 

  • Chevrolet
  • Honda
  • Dodge
  • Toyota
  • Subaru
  • Audi

Conclusion

A blinking or flashing check engine light is almost always caused by a misfire. If it happens to you, get your car to a repair shop as soon as possible. If you ignore your check engine light flashing, you can cause potential damage to your car that could snowball and result in a several thousand dollar repair job. And nobody wants that. Ever.

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