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What do all those buttons in your car do?

26 November 2021

What do all those buttons in your car do?

Most people don’t know the meaning behind the range of buttons in their car. To help you understand your car, we demystify 10 common need to know buttons.

When you drive a new car for the first time, you’ll discover a multitude of buttons, switches, levers and dials; some you’re confident of using, others you’ll likely place on the ‘I must look that up in the manual later’ list. 

Some of these mystery buttons are the result of new car technology, some may just be hangovers of technology you never fully grasped. Don’t worry, we're all in the same boat.

Though the location and style of these buttons may vary from car to car, their functions are basically the same. Here we’ll demystify some of the buttons you’ll encounter when you’re behind the wheel.

Hazard warning lights

These are flashing orange or red lights that alert other drivers to a hazard. The button symbol shows a triangle inside another triangle (usually red).

If you are experiencing engine trouble, flat tyre or some other reason that has forced you to stop your car on (do really try to pull over to the side) or near to the side of the road, you should immediately turn on your hazard lights so that other drivers get more time to react. 

You can also use your hazard lights while moving slowly in dangerous conditions such as fog, snow and heavy rain.

Child locks

If you are concerned that a child in the backseat of your car might open the door while you are driving, then you’ll want to press the child lock.  These locks prevent the door from opening from the inside until they are disengaged. 

On older cars, child lock buttons can be found by opening the rear doors. On the inside of the door you’ll find a switch can be flicked to the locked or unlocked position. In new cars, the child lock which usually is symbolised by a padlock (sometimes with the illustration of a small figure inside it) is often found on the door on the driver’s side. 

Fog lights

If you’ve ever driven in fog before, you’ll know how difficult it can be to see vehicles in front of you and behind you. Turning your high beams on can actually make visibility worse. Fog lights are what you use in these situations. 

Not all cars have fog lights, but if yours does, you’ll usually find the control for them with the high beam switch. It will be symbolised by a beam shape with a squiggly line (an elongated ‘S’ shape) with the three small horizontal lines going through it.

Be sure to turn your fog lights off once you’ve exited the fog, because, like high beams, it is illegal to drive with them on when they are not needed.

Cruise control

If you see a button in your car either on one of the stems of the steering wheel or on the steering wheel itself that has a symbol of a speedometer with an arrow pointing to a particular speed, it’s your cruise control. If you haven’t used this feature before and you’re out on the open road, you’re in for a treat.  

Cruise control keeps your car at a constant speed without you having to press the accelerator. Once you’ve reached the desired speed, set the cruise control and the car will remain at that speed until the cruise control is disengaged (either switching it off or by touching the brake). 

Older cruise control systems aren’t great at keeping speed constant downhill. Newer cruise control systems adjust for downhill sections and will slow the car automatically - they will even adjust for cars in front of you and slow you down if you are approaching too quickly.

Recirculating air

The recirculating air button has the symbol of a car with a curved arrow inside of it that looks like a fish hook. This button draws air from inside the car rather than from the outside.

The right time to use the recirculating air button is when you get into a hot car and turn on the air conditioning or when you get into a cold car in winter and want the heater to warm the car faster. 

You could also switch on the recirculating air button if you are driving in the city and there are lots of fumes outside. It won’t stop all the nasty fumes getting in, but it will cut it down.


It is difficult and dangerous to drive with your windows fogged up. Newer cars have a button you can press to do the job quickly and effectively. 

The button you’re looking for has roughly the shape of a windscreen with three ‘S’ shaped arrows going through it. When you press this button, air will be blown out of vents and onto your windscreen. Turn up the force of the air and it will remove the fog more quickly.  

Your rear window can also be defogged by switching on a button that looks like the front demister only, rather than a windscreen shape, it has a rectangle. 

Steering wheel adjustments

Most steering wheels can be adjusted using a lever underneath the column that holds the steering wheel. You’ll want to do this while you’ve stopped - but flick the lever and then move the steering wheel up or down to a position that suits. You can lock it into place by flicking the lever in the opposite direction.

To find the best position, a good rule of thumb is to ensure when your hands are at the position of 10 o’clock and 2 o’clock on the steering wheel, your arms will have a slight bend.  This position is a good compromise between control, comfort and safety. 

Blind spot warning (BSW) 

Blind spots are areas where other cars can’t be seen in your side or rear view mirror - and all cars have them. That’s why before turning and switching lanes, you should always turn your head to see the way is clear.

Blind spot warning is a relatively new technology that detects and alerts you to the presence of other vehicles in your blind spot areas. If a vehicle is detected, the driver will be given a visual warning which usually appears as a yellow light in the side mirrors. 

Other than the visual warning on the mirrors, some cars will also have an audible alert. Other cars can also provide an extra alert if the indicator is switched while a car has been detected in a blind spot.

Park Assist

No matter how many times you’ve done a reverse park, when the traffic is backed up behind you and the pressure is on, it can be hard to pull off. Technology has come to the rescue in the form of park assist.

When park assist’s radar detects a parking spot, it will usually give an audible chime before engaging the engine and taking over the steering. Most systems still require you to use the accelerator and the brake. The car will however steer its way perfectly into the spot - making you look like a parking hero.

Park assist is becoming more standard in new cars today or you’ll find it as a reasonably priced option. But if you’re one of us that can feel the pressure when the cars are waiting on your parking ability, you may want to splash out on this clever piece of technology.

Collision warning and automatic braking

Collision warning uses cameras or sensors on the front of your car to detect if you are approaching a vehicle in front of you at too great a speed. With most systems, you will be given audible and visual alerts. 

These smart systems give you ample time to slow down before the frontal collision. As previously mentioned, if your car is also fitted with automatic braking then once it detects an impending collision, it will even do the braking for you.

Like some other previously mentioned innovations, collision detection and automatic braking are becoming more standard. If you are looking to buy a new car, these are two pieces of technology that are well worth the money.

Now that the button mystery is solved you can get out on the road more safely and comfortably. For that extra peace of mind, you should also consider purchasing car insurance for ultimate protection. 

If you live in SA, WA, QLD, NSW, TAS, ACT or NT, NRMA offers a range of car insurance covers that provides the best protection for you and your car.


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