A pick-up truck sporting a sticker reading “Prius repellent” with arrows pointing to two big chrome exhaust pipes rolls up next to you and belches a cloud of black smoke in your direction.
You’re out for a jog and all of a sudden find yourself choking on a plume of diesel exhaust from a passing vehicle, as those inside laugh from the open windows.
Blowing a cloud of black smoke from the tailpipes of a diesel-engine truck to annoy pedestrians and motorists is called rolling coal, and it’s a cultural pastime among a particular set of individual. The practice is also illegal in Colorado.
The trouble is police have a problem enforcing laws against it, according to law enforcement officers who testified in favor of a bill to help them better regulate what they see as a growing problem.
Currently, for cops to crack down on coal rollers, officers must be trained to discern the opacity of the smoke, and also observe it happening for a full five seconds.
A measure to change this, which died in a GOP-controlled Senate transportation committee last week, would have made it a misdemeanor to blow smoke out of your tailpipe in a way that would make a reasonable person feel harassed or annoyed. The penalty would be a $35 fine and potentially two points on your license.
For those uninitiated in the rolling coal phenomenon there are plenty of YouTube videos to peruse.
Manipulating vehicles to make rolling coal easier has apparently become something of a cottage industry.
“I think we’ve all witnessed and seen the black smoke go up,” said Aurora Democratic Sen. Nancy Todd, at the April 26 hearing.
“Blowing thick black smoke from exhaust pipes is a serious public nuisance,” said Democratic Sen. John Kefalas of Fort Collins.
A Fort Collins police lieutenant testified in favor of the bill, saying, “It can blow up a whole intersection with black smoke in just a few seconds.” That’s why the bill is needed, he said, to help officers who aren’t trained be able to enforce the law and not have to wait a full five seconds before issuing a ticket.
Chris Johnson, who represents the County Sheriffs of Colorado, says the state’s sheriffs back the bill.
“I’ve seen this happen,” he said. “It is an issue.”
A woman from the Municipal League testified in favor, calling the practice a “public safety issue.” She has been rolled on, she said, and knows it can sometimes take several seconds for the black smoke to clear from your windshield.
A program manager at the state health and environment department testified how rolling coal is a “dangerous” form of intimidation and harassment on the road, adding the bill would reduce carcinogenic smoke and make Colorado’s roads safer.
Even a self-proclaimed car enthusiast who represents car clubs said the bill is needed. He’s in favor of modifying cars, he said, but doesn’t like “spewing black smoke,” which he called “immature” and dangerous.
Coal rollers have given some car scene types a bad name, he said. The practice, he explained, has been growing in popularity among the “diesel community,” and programming trucks to make rolling coal easier is simple to do.
This testimony, however, was not enough for three Republicans on the Senate Transportation Committee.
Parker Republican Sen. Mark Scheffel said rolling coal sounded like flash-in-the pan behavior that didn’t rise to the level of overreaching legislation.
“It feels like we’re passing legislation bringing to bear the full power of this building and this body to pass a law targeted at youth that are engaged in a fad,” he said. “I can’t believe that there aren’t other ways that law enforcement can target this.”
Johnson of the sheriff’s office said it wasn’t just kids, but young adults who spend money on purposefully manipulating their vehicles to annoy people.
“Unless we’re dealing with some evil element of society, I mean, OK, if it’s not kids, it’s millennials with too much time and money on their hands that are choosing to spend their time harassing pedestrians,” Scheffel said. “It just seems odd that we need a specific law, that there aren’t other ways that law enforcement couldn’t deal with this. … It just seems odd that we’re targeting this so specifically.”
Scheffel voted no on the bill.
Mesa County Republican Sen. Ray Scott worried cops might ticket regular folks with diesel trucks pulling trailers up a hill for blowing out too much smoke as they shift gears.
Proponents of the bill countered that the legislation said it’s only a crime if a reasonable person felt harassed or annoyed by it.
Scott wanted to know why cops couldn’t already ticket someone for “whatever it’s called, coal driving, or whatever,” for careless driving. Proponents argued rolling coal has to do more with spewing exhaust than with driving.
That wasn’t enough for Scott, who voted no.
Randy Baumgardner, the Republican committee chair who represents northwestern Colorado, didn’t say much during the hearing. He voted against the proposal, too.
The two Democrats voted yes. And so a bill to make enforcing laws against rolling coal easier for local police died in committee on a party-line vote of 3-2.