At one time or another, you may have witnessed a pickup blowing out thick clouds of black exhaust smoke, apparently on purpose, and wondered if it’s legal.

It’s called “rolling coal,” and it is indeed a thing. Coal rollers are diesel pickup owners who trick out their vehicles in ways that allow them to belch smoke whenever the mood strikes. Often, that means targeting people and things they don’t like, such as Black Lives Matter protesters, bicyclists, or electric cars.

It’s not new — pickup drivers of a particular type have been rolling coal for several years— but the practice has been attracting greater attention of late.

Much of it is because of a viral TikTok video of an incident inside a Texas hamburger joint in October. A pickup spewed plumes of smoke through an open front door, disrupting a gathering of teenagers who were dining after a football game.

On Sept. 25, a 16-year-old Texas boy driving a diesel pickup targeted a group of eight bicyclists. As he drew close to roll coal, he hit six of them, sending four to the hospital. On Nov. 8, the Waller County district attorney’s office announced that it charged the driver with six counts of felony aggravated assault with a deadly weapon.

And there have been many examples of coal rollers targeting electric Teslas, no doubt because coal rollers find them offensive but also because all Teslas are equipped with video cameras.

So, is it illegal?

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the answer is yes. The EPA says that “aftermarket performance modifications” that disable emissions control technology are violations of the Clean Air Act. In 2020, the EPA issued a report detailing the scope of the practice, concluding that 550,000 diesel pickups had tampered with emission controls, resulting in significant air pollution.

That much is clear. But enforcing that law is difficult because offenders must be caught red-handed.

That doesn’t mean that the EPA is not acting, however. In March, the agency sued EZ Lynk, a Cayman Islands company that sells “defeat devices” that make the modification task easier. And last year the EPA levied a fine of more than $850,000 against the Diesel Brothers, stars of a Discovery Channel reality-TV show for bypassing emissions regulations in customizing their trucks.

What Are States Doing?

When it comes to enforcing incidents of coal rolling, however, the legal picture becomes murky.

Only a few states expressly forbid coal rolling, which could leave the impression that most states allow it. But most states also have laws that prohibit drivers from obstructing roadways with excessive exhaust fumes, leaving police officers to make judgment calls. Some states specify the levels of smoke opacity that determine whether a driver is breaking the law. In Colorado, for instance, a violation occurs if someone’s exhaust blocks more than 35% of light.

If you are pulled over for rolling coal in Colorado, the fine is $100. Coal rollers might also receive warnings from police if they receive information via a Smoking Vehicle Hotline that allows people to report offenders. The North Central Texas Council of Governments has a similar reporting program.

Other states have tougher penalties. In Maryland, a coal roller can be fined $500. In New Jersey, a fine can be up to $5,000. Still, most states don’t target rolling coal by name.

Unfortunately, it appears that many irresponsible diesel pickup owners consider rolling coal an expression of free speech that the government can’t curtail. But most of us, including the responsible majority of diesel pickup owners, would disagree. We would also agree that rolling coal is an adolescent act.

And it’s one that needs to be cleaned up.

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