Why is “rolling coal” still tolerated at all?

A recent New York Times story covered the practice of “rolling coal” which is perhaps the most flagrant disregard for the environment this country has seen in the past couple of decades. For the uninitiated, I will cite Wikipedia’s explanation:

Rolling coal is the practice of modifying a diesel engine to increase the amount of fuel entering the engine in order to emit an under-aspirated sooty exhaust that visibly pollutes the air. It also may include the intentional removal of the particulate filter. Practitioners often additionally modify their vehicles by installing smoke switches and smoke stacks. Modifications to a vehicle to enable rolling coal may cost from [US]$200 to [US]$5,000.

Rolling coal is a form of conspicuous air pollution. Some drivers intentionally trigger coal rolling to taunt environmentalists, such as those who drive hybrid vehicles (when it is nicknamed “Prius repellent”), as well as bicyclists and pedestrians.

The article goes on, of course, but that’s enough to get the gist of what is going on here. I will summarize by saying the environmental concerns are only part of the case against rolling coal, and there is also a road safety impact as the black smoke obscures visibility as well.

The Clean Air Act prohibits the modifications necessary for rolling coal, though rarely is that act enforced by itself. Only New Jersey has actually passed a law which outlaws rolling coal. I’m honestly surprised why the states which require vehicle inspections haven’t cracked down on this. (Incidentally, not all states require inspections, most notably Florida and Minnesota, per this Wikipedia article.)

We’ve already had this discussion as a society when it came to smoking. Those who wanted to breathe clean air have pretty much already won. The pharmacy chain CVS does not sell tobacco products any longer (I’m surprised how long it’s taking Walgreens to follow suit). Where I live (Houston, Texas, US), restaurants, bars, and pubs cannot allow indoor smoking, and only a few designated “cigar bars” are permitted to do so (I don’t think any new cigar bars are allowed inside city limits, but I could be wrong).

And so it is with rolling coal. The difference is, cigarette smoke has never been opaque enough to cause a traffic or safety hazard just from its opacity. Soot from diesel exhaust does. From the New York Times article:

The owner [of a Ram 3500 fitted with two steel smokestacks], Pryce Hoey, insisted his truck was emissions compliant, but nevertheless agreed to demonstrate its smoke-generating prowess.

“I just wanted something different,” Mr. Hoey said, revving the engine and releasing two black pillars of smoke into the evening air before Sgt. Worthington shut him down. “People who see it giggle. They think it’s funny.”

I wonder how many people giggle when they find out someone they know has lung cancer or another health issue related to inhaling this garbage. Or when they hear about a traffic accident. This is not funny, people. This is dangerous. I can only hope that Mr. Hoey got a huge fine from showing off his “emissions compliant” truck. It should not take a genius to figure out that anything that belches forth black smoke is at the very least unethical, and almost certainly is not “emissions compliant.”

It’s time to put a stop to reckless and senseless air pollution once and for all. I encourage everyone reading this to document rolling coal incidents and write their state (and federal) legislators, linking to photos and video so they can see for themselves.