The Car That Cried “Wolf!”
Dashboard Symbols

You’ve heard the story of the boy who cried “Wolf!” He was bored, and he just wanted to see the villagers come running out to save the sheep. Well, my car is like that.

About five years ago, I had some family members visiting me for Christmas and we were out running errands late on a Saturday afternoon when this light (_!_) appeared on my dashboard. I didn’t know what it meant, so I got the manual out of the glove box to figure it out. It meant I had a flat tire.

I thought a quick trip to a gas station would solve the problem, but it turned out to be more difficult than I had imagined to get air in a tire. It was bitterly cold—-below -30C—-and that has the effect of making tires flatter and air pumps inoperable. I went to three different gas stations and at each station I managed to let more air out of the tires as I tried unsuccessfully to put air in.

By this time I was beginning to panic. Someone at the third gas station suggested we should go to a tire store, but it was just after the time the stores closed, and we were not optimistic. Fortunately, there was one person left in the store, and his air pump was inside the building. He stayed to put air in my tire, and I could not have been more grateful.

Not only did he go out of his way to help me out, he casually pointed out that “Yeah, those sensors are really sensitive.” What he meant was that when that light showed up on my dashboard, I should not panic. It did not mean I had a flat tire. It meant that the tire was no longer at the optimal pressure, which is a different thing altogether.

This experience came to mind a couple of weeks ago when a similar thing happened. I had just left Winnemucca, Nevada on Highway 80 when the (_!_) light came on. I stopped at the side of the road and looked at all my tires. None of them appeared to be flat. There was no need to panic, I told myself. It’s just a sensitive sensor. I had driven several minutes from Winnemucca and couldn’t see anywhere to legally turn around, so I decided to keep heading east. I would stop at the next gas station and check the air pressure in all my tires.

Well, there isn’t much of anything east of Winnemucca, and as the miles clicked on, I became more anxious. How far can you go on a flattish tire before it becomes seriously flat? I had no idea. There will be a gas station soon, I told myself again and again. After about forty miles there was, indeed, a gas station and I thankfully pulled in. I looked all around and couldn’t see an air pump, so I went in to ask the attendant where it was. “Oh, we don’t have air,” she said. “You have to go to the next town, fifteen miles from here.”

At that point I was really nervous and started the internal dialogue that just makes things worse . “If I have to change a tire, I’ll have to get all my luggage out of the trunk. I’ll also have to take off the flat tire and put on the spare. I haven’t changed a tire in about forty years. I suppose I can still do it. How hard can it be? They put those nuts on really tight, though. What if I can’t undo the nuts?….” And so on.

Eventually, fifty-three miles from Winnemucca, I did get to the next town and found a gas station with an air pump. When I put the air gauge to the tires they all still registered at about 35 psi—-exactly what they are supposed to be! What the heck? Regardless, I put a bit more air in each tire, and after driving for a few minutes the (_!_) light went out. At this point, I was feeling a strange mixture of relief that the problem was solved and frustration that there had not really been a problem in the first place.

The people who design dashboards really shouldn’t mess around with exclamation points. They are the only symbol we have that means “OMG.” If you are going to put a warning light on a dashboard, it ought to be indicative of some impending peril, not a gentle suggestion to look into something a week from now. Otherwise, they are just like the boy who cried “Wolf!” and we will stop paying attention.


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