Rules of the Road

Coal rollers aren’t just being jerks – they’re breaking the law

A crowd watches during the Illini State Pullers event at the 2016 McHenry County Fair in Woodstock, Ill. The thick black smoke from the modified engines at the event is also showing up on the nation’s roads, when drivers known as coal rollers, alter their diesel trucks so they spew thick black smoke in a show of defiance.
A crowd watches during the Illini State Pullers event at the 2016 McHenry County Fair in Woodstock, Ill. The thick black smoke from the modified engines at the event is also showing up on the nation’s roads, when drivers known as coal rollers, alter their diesel trucks so they spew thick black smoke in a show of defiance. The New York Times

Question: I’ve seen diesel pickups spewing out black smoke on command, or “rolling coal.” It seems like sometimes they do it intentionally to irritate other drivers or cyclists. It that legal?

Answer: Up until “rolling coal” was explained to me, I just thought the black smoke coming from diesel pickups was a result of a lack of maintenance on the part of the owner. Apparently I underestimated the will of some drivers in their efforts to be pointlessly annoying. For those who are unfamiliar with the term, “rolling coal” happens when a driver of a diesel truck intentionally belches out a giant cloud of black smoke.

In the right setting, rolling coal makes sense. Go to a tractor pull or truck pull and you’ll see plumes of smoke as drivers pump more fuel into their engines to squeeze every last bit of power they can get from their machine. Modifying the fuel system is part of the competitive strategy of the event.

It quits making sense when a pickup owner spends money on his (this is definitely a male-dominated activity) truck for the sole purpose of making a cloud of black smoke without getting any performance gains. It goes from senseless to obnoxious when he does it to smoke out other road users.

Going back a couple sentences, yep, you read that right. Rolling coal isn’t achieved by just stomping on the gas pedal. It requires modifying the vehicle (read spending time and money) to trick the engine into thinking it needs more fuel.

I haven’t experienced any episodes of rolling coal, but I’ve talked to people who have. They tend to be cyclists or Prius drivers. According to them (and much of the internet supports their claims) these coal rollers target cyclists, drivers of hybrid cars, pedestrians and anyone else they think doesn’t belong on the road.

Yeah, it’s a jerk move.

But before you get too riled up about it, keep in mind that this is a tiny segment of the driving population. It’s even a tiny segment of the diesel truck driving population.

In fact, if you were to go to most any diesel truck online forum, you’d see truck owners mocking the few drivers who engage in rolling coal on public roads. On one site, the first two comments directed toward an aspiring coal roller read, “Rolling coal is stupid,” and, “You won’t make any friends, and you won’t impress the ladies either.”

I’d almost be willing to tolerate rolling coal as just another dumb prank by an immature driver if it weren’t for the safety aspect. Some people who have been on the stinky end of the tailpipe have described clouds of smoke so dark they couldn’t see for a few seconds. We know seconds matter when driving, and that’s what turns rolling coal from an obnoxious joke to a real hazard.

If you’re a coal roller, you might argue that if we’re honest, almost all of us have to admit that at some point in our driving history we’ve done something (or some things) that we’re not proud of. But there’s a difference; spontaneously responding to an unexpected driving situation in a way that we hope our mother never sees or hears is not the same thing as planning in advance, and investing money in, a way to annoy and potentially harm other road users.

Modifying a vehicle so that it can envelop a Prius in black smoke is a premeditated act. This is why I don’t think rolling coal will become, as the New York Times proclaimed, “a new menace on America’s roads.”

Maybe I have too much faith in humanity, but I believe that only a tiny segment of society is willing to waste their time and money to plan in advance to be jerks. Most of us aspire to more.

At this point I think I’ve made it abundantly clear that rolling coal is obnoxious and potentially unsafe, but is it legal?

A few states have laws that specifically prohibit the action, but Washington is not one of those states. That doesn’t mean it’s legal. Or more accurately, the modifications that allow a person to create a giant cloud of smoke are not legal.

Gov. Jerry Brown and Attorney General Xavier Becerra joined other states in a lawsuit against the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency over vehicle emission standards.

The Environmental Protection Agency rules prohibit modifying or bypassing any emission controls on a vehicle. In addition, Washington has some emissions-related laws, and depending on the county you live in and the age of your vehicle, you may have to pass an emissions test to get your registration renewed.

I don’t expect that local law enforcement agencies will expend much of their resources investigating emissions violations, but modifying a vehicle in order to roll coal is not legal.

Beyond the legality though, this is one of those things that, even if it’s not that big a deal in the whole scheme of things, speaks to a person’s character. We all have done things we’ve looked back on and said to ourselves, “How could I have been such a jerk?” What we don’t want to be is the person who looks forward and says, “How can I be more of a jerk?”

Road Rules is a regular column on road laws, safe driving habits and general police practices. Doug Dahl is the Target Zero Manager for the Whatcom County Traffic Safety Task Force. Target Zero is Washington’s vision to reduce traffic fatalities and serious injuries to zero by 2030. For more traffic safety information visit TheWiseDrive.com. Ask a question.

The Norwegian drone vessel, christened YARA Birkeland, will be the world’s first autonomous ship. Once it enters autonomous operation, toting up to 120 20-foot containers per journey, it will pull congestion off Norwegian highways.

  Comments