On the morning of Saturday, September 25th, a 16-year-old behind the wheel of a massive Ford pickup truck spotted a string of cyclists pedaling along the old 290 Highway running through Waller, Texas.
Less of a highway and more of a back road, the old 290 is popular with cyclists who use the long, straight path as a training ground. But cyclist Chase Ferrell watched as the black pickup pulled up alongside a group of riders ahead of him and then accelerated hard, wrapping the cyclists in plumes of thick brown smoke. Then the truck did it again, and again. “It made me mad, so I accelerated to try to catch up to him so I could take a picture of his truck, take a picture of him, of his license plate or something,” Ferrell told Houston news station KPRC.
Instead, he watched as the truck sped up as well — and this time, it accelerated straight into the riders ahead of Ferrell, leaving their bodies and bikes splayed across the two-lane road. Nobody died, but all six cyclists went to the hospital, and two needed airlifts. All this, over one teenager’s pursuit of life, liberty and the freedom to “roll coal.”
Rolling coal is the act of spewing a cloud of smoke from the tailpipe of a diesel-powered car, and it’s one of the most noxious American trends to take off in the last 10 years. The act is usually made possible with aftermarket engine modifications that pump more diesel into the engine, making it run “rich” and emit a more polluted exhaust. And though it has innocuous roots in truck-pulling competitions, “rolling coal” is now used predominantly by young, white men to harass and attack people on roads, sidewalks and parking lots — a literal toxic flex of size and combustion. (The fact that one of the earliest viral depictions of rolling coal features a truck full of dudes blasting a woman with black exhaust for a misogynistic “prank” is probably a symbolic bit of foresight.)
“Waller County is a very popular place for cyclists to train, and they’re used to being harassed on the road by drivers over there. They’re used to being threatened. They’re not so used to being coal-rolled and run over, however,” explains Joe Cutrufo, the executive director of nonprofit advocacy group BikeHouston. “This is way beyond what we’ve come to expect.”
There’s no doubt that the rolling-coal trend is making pollution much worse in America, but perhaps even more problematic is the reason why it’s happening. Consider it the latest wrinkle in an American conservative movement that seems increasingly aggressive. It’s hard to ignore so many news stories and gleeful videos of young men rolling coal on Black Lives Matter protesters and anti-police activists. Elsewhere, men with trucks have spewed black smoke at a women’s march, a gun violence and school safety rally and at a trans rights rally. It’s not just social politics that seem to trigger coal-rolling, either — along with cyclists, people in hybrid and electric vehicles also are targeted by diesel drivers, for no reason other than that they can.
Cutrufo has experienced it firsthand: He was coal-rolled at Shenandoah National Park in Virginia while driving a Ford hybrid with his family last year. A diesel truck with a “PRIUS REPELLENT” sticker pulled up alongside, then covered the car in a plume of black as it skittered away. “It makes you wonder whether it’s something people see other drivers do on social media, and then they decide, ‘Oh, I’m going to tweak my truck so I can do that too, because I hate people who drive Priuses and ride bikes,’”Cutrufo tells me. “I mean, don’t they breathe oxygen, too?”
Instead, coal-rolling has become a counter-culture unto its own, celebrated by people like the “Diesel Brothers,” who have gotten reality-TV deals and massive audiences while acting like the walking embodiment of rolling coal. At least Heavy D and Diesel Dave have gotten fined to the tune of $850,000 for using and selling illegally modified trucks; in many cases, reports of rolling coal aren’t properly investigated by local cops.
To that end, in Waller County, the teen driver was questioned and let go. Although a special prosecutor was assigned to the case after public criticism and internet outrage, any charges have yet to be announced. “When we look at this, there’s a concern that it potentially emboldens others who feel the same way this teenager felt to go out and harass others. In fact, I just spoke with someone who was struck while biking in the next county over, right on the Waller county line — intentionally run off the road by the pickup driver,” Cutrufo says. “He suffered a broken elbow, and it was within five days of the Waller crash.”
In the days following the accident, Waller County’s district attorney released a statement lambasting the local police’s treatment of the crime scene, and has since vowed to make things right. But the vast majority of rolling-coal incidents in the U.S. don’t lead to obvious injuries or harm, and therefore, it’s common for perpetrators to face minimal consequences, even if they’re caught. Waller’s DA might now believe that rolling coal is “assault,” but in many jurisdictions, the act itself is effectively treated as legal.
Perhaps that’s why it’s so enticing as a form of intimidating protest: Rolling coal disrupts and quite literally chokes the opposition, but it’s difficult for victims to document in the moment, and ultimately easy for police to dismiss if no physical harm is evident.
It takes a special kind of false bravado to waste gas, ruin your truck’s components and be proud of the results. It also takes a huge dose of hatred to escalate violence from behind the dash of a three-ton truck. But that’s the legacy of modern coal-rolling — a conservative meme that’s unlikely to run out of steam any time soon.