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Law and Crime

The Cruel Practice of Rolling Coal

Some may consider it funny, but rolling coal is an indignity.

Key points

  • Rolling coal refers to blasting pedestrians or cyclists with plumes of diesel smoke.
  • Modifying diesel cars to roll coal is illegal and a violation of the Clean Air Act.
  • Only six states have made rolling coal illegal, and the problem is under-recognized.
  • Acute diesel exposure can result in airway irritation and respiratory changes.

There’s nothing cool about rolling coal, also known as coal rolling. To those unfamiliar with the practice, it entails a diesel truck spewing a thick plume of black smoke on unsuspecting cyclists, pedestrians, or other drivers. Rolling coal is bad for the environment and bad for the victim.

Coal rolling is definitely a nuisance. Who wants miasma blasted in their face and lungs? But is it assault? Moreover, if someone purposefully dumps a bunch of coal particulate matter on you because of your race or religion, could this be considered a hate crime?

The background of rolling coal

Rolling coal is underrecognized, underreported, and under-researched. Most of what appears on the Internet consists of staged YouTube videos of drivers rolling coal. The practice made its way from truck pull competitions, where the show entertained audiences, to the streets.

The mechanics of rolling coal involve taking in excess fuel without sufficient air by flooding the engine. Without adequate oxygen to burn the fuel, a sooty black exhaust filled with particulate matter is expelled. This exhaust can be maliciously directed at others.

Although in violation of the Clean Air Act, cars can be modified to roll coal. These modifications can cost thousands of dollars and include removing the particulate filter or installing large exhausts, smokestacks, tuners, smoke injectors, or smoke switches. Switches enable these devices to be turned on or off while driving.

Rolling coal is currently illegal in Colorado, Connecticut, Maine, Maryland, New Jersey, and Utah. It’s a difficult law to enforce, however, because the officer must either witness the incident or there must be video evidence.

Various media accounts have highlighted coal rolling cases as politically motivated, targeting those as seen as environmentally friendly like cyclists and owners of EVs. Diesel drivers have also rolled coal on Black Lives Matter protesters and others.

Sometimes, rolling coal results in the unthinkable, as was the case when a 16-year-old driver crashed into six cyclists in Texas in 2021.

Health consequences

Even brief exposures to diesel exhaust can cause airway irritation, transient decreases in lung function, and increased inflammation, according to research.

Other acute effects of diesel exhaust exposure include headache, fatigue, and nausea.

Although the vast majority of people who are coal-rolled find it a mere annoyance, smoke is known to be a trigger in those with asthma.

According to anecdotal accounts, on a psychological level, rolling coal is described as an intimidating, degrading, and disgusting experience. Some victims describe having it happen multiple times on a single bicycle excursion by the same perpetrator.

Legal implications

Rolling coal brings various legal issues to light, including assault.

According to Black’s Law Dictionary, simple assault involves attempts to purposefully, knowingly, or recklessly cause bodily injury to another. It can also involve one person using physical menace to scare another with the threat of imminent bodily injury. As discussed, depending on the circumstances, diesel exhaust could feasibly result in bodily injury. Moreover, there are plenty of accounts of people left shaken by diesel drivers buzzing them while rolling coal.

Hate crimes are defined as crimes such as assault that are motivated by bias against a group of people with specific characteristics.

Bottom line

Rolling coal is a pretty crummy thing to do to somebody. Although arguments could be made about assault, at the minimum rolling coal is an annoyance. Blasting pedestrians and cyclists with noxious soot is an indignity. It remains to be seen what, if any, further legal actions will be taken against this practice. Some experts suggest that the federal government should penalize the manufacturers of devices purchased to roll coal.

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