When a 16-year-old driver in a black pickup truck “coal-rolled” cyclist Chase Ferrell last Saturday, intentionally spewing a cloud of acrid diesel smoke in his face, he didn’t find it particularly amusing.
“It pissed me off,” Ferrell, who was training along Old Highway 290 in Waller, Texas with a larger group for the upcoming Ironman Texas triathlon, told The Daily Beast. “I was trying to pedal fast to catch up to him and give him a piece of my mind, tell him he was an asshole. And then he tried to do the same thing to the people in the pace line in front of me.”
This time, however, the driver sped up and slammed into the group, hitting six riders.
“He...just hit them,” said Ferrell. “Ran them over. It was nuts.”
Four of the six were taken to the hospital. Two were so badly hurt, they had to be airlifted from the scene. Khurram Khan, a world-class Ironman competitor who lives in Houston, is friends with several of the cyclists who were there and set up a GoFundMe page to help with medical bills, bike repairs, and other unforeseen expenses they are likely to face. They are still recovering from their injuries, and have retained a law firm to represent them in court, according to Khan.
“Some have broken lumbars, some have broken wrists, arms, some required surgery,” Khan told The Daily Beast. “To get life-flighted alone, that was a huge bill. And bikes are not cheap—these racing bikes can go as high as $15,000.”
The driver, whose name has not been released by authorities, is “a young man in high school with college aspirations,” his lawyer said five days after the crash. “He’s a very new and inexperienced driver.”
But he has not yet faced any legal repercussions, leaving the cycling community outraged.
In June, a Waller man was sentenced to life in prison for intentionally driving into a group of cyclists during a race in 2017, killing two riders. In August, an intoxicated Maryland man who plowed into seven cyclists—killing one—was sentenced to 20 years in prison for the crash.
In some states, rolling coal can lead to criminal exposure, too. Last year, an Oregon man was charged with two counts of harassment after rolling coal on attendees at a Black Lives Matter rally, “causing them physical discomfort,” the DA’s office announced at the time. In Texas, a law requiring drivers to give cyclists a wide berth has been debated, but there is no law explicitly prohibiting the rolling of coal.
After hitting the cyclists in Waller, the driver still seemed to realize he had done something wrong.
“His first words were, ‘I’m sorry—oh my God, did I kill someone?’” Ferrell recalled. “We realized everyone was still alive, thank God. Then he said, ‘Am I going to jail?’ And I was like, ‘Yeah, you’re going to jail. That was really stupid.’ And he started crying, and that was about it.”
But, when Waller cops showed up on Saturday, the teen was questioned and released. His parents arrived at the crash site before police responded, according to Ferrell.
“All the people that were hurt were training for the Ironman Texas race, we’re two weeks out,” said Ferrell. “Everyone who was out there has had their hopes and dreams crushed by this idiotic reckless kid.”
The so-called practice of rolling coal has been called an “anti-environmentalist movement,” with drivers of modified diesel trucks sneeringly discharging thick black exhaust at pedestrians, bicyclists, and people driving electric cars. That is, rolling coal is a vehicular middle finger of sorts, wrapped in a political statement intended to provoke “polite” society. Beyond attracting (often unwanted) attention from others, diesel pickups modified with devices that allow the engine to bypass emissions controls are, essentially, the enemy of clean air: A 2020 report by the Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Civil Enforcement found that 550,000 diesel pickups with disabled emissions controls have had “an air quality impact equivalent to adding more than 9 million additional (compliant, non-tampered) diesel pickup trucks to our roads.”
On Wednesday morning, Waller County District Attorney Elton Mathis—who previously said he was “troubled” by the situation—stated publicly that rolling coal on pedestrians or cyclists under certain circumstances could be considered a crime.
“Rolling coal when a person is in the vicinity and when the individual rolling coal intentionally or knowingly causes that excess exhaust to contact that bystander is AT A MINIMUM an assault,” Mathis wrote on the Waller County DA’s official Facebook page. “They are causing their vehicle to ‘spit’ on a living, breathing, human being that is worthy of dignity and not having his or her person violated. That simple assault is easily elevated to a jail eligible offense if bodily injury occurs, which can be caused by entry of toxic particles into mouth, nose and eyes. Waller County law enforcement agencies all across the county are being reminded today of the availability of these and other charges which can be brought against individuals acting in such a criminal manner.”
Mathis did not respond to a request for comment. In his Facebook post, he said the “underlying investigation and gathering of evidence by Waller PD is still progressing.”
Joe Cutrufo is the executive director of BikeHouston, a bicycling advocacy group. Waller County, a rural area about 50 miles northwest of Houston, is a popular spot for competitive cyclists to train on weekends, said Cutrufo.
“You have these country lanes with relatively little traffic and relatively few intersections compared to the streets in Houston,” Cutrufo told The Daily Beast. “It’s a great place for people who like to ride fast, who are training for a race or a triathlon. And so you end up with a lot of folks in places like Waller County who see cyclists as outsiders, elitists from Houston who are coming in just to use their nice, straight rural lanes and they don't really understand why anyone would want to ride a bike.”
Although Mathis appears open to the idea of prosecuting the driver responsible for the crash, Cutrufo isn’t holding his breath waiting for a conviction.
“I would refer you to the growing body of literature on the well-trodden fact that if you hurt someone or kill someone with a motor vehicle, you have a very good chance of getting away with it,” said Cutrufo. “I think the psychology here is that police and judges and jurors and the general traveling public are more likely to empathize with the person behind the wheel than the person under the wheels of the vehicle.”
Drivers who kill cyclists rarely serve jail time, according to various local and national studies. In July, NFL assistant coach Greg Knapp was riding his bike in California when he was killed by a distracted driver. The 22-year-old behind the wheel will not face criminal charges, police said last week.
The Waller case should serve as a reminder of the huge responsibility that comes with operating a multi-ton motor vehicle, Cutrufo continued. His advice to drivers would be to view cyclists as human beings, that are well within their legal rights to ride on public roads without being targeted by people in cars.
“We hear it all the time,” Bill Nesper, executive director of the League of American Bicyclists, told The Daily Beast. “There’s just a sort of ‘othering,’ if you will, of people who are wearing special clothes and are out doing something out on the road that is supposed to be a ‘car space.’”
An incident like the one in Waller can happen anywhere, said Cutrufo, who is concerned that if the driver does not face charges, other drivers will feel emboldened to “harass and threaten and potentially kill or maim bicyclists.”
For Chase Ferrell, things are already different.
“I’m not going to be riding in Waller again anytime soon,” he said. “It sucks, it’s a great area. But it's not worth it, man.”