Some commuters listen to the radio on their way to work, others mentally review their to-do list for the day.
But as Brian Hanable weaves along surface streets for his 26-mile drive from Redondo Beach to Hollywood, he scans the prices on the dozen or so gas stations he passes, noting them on the voice recorder of his cellphone.
When he gets to work, the film graphic artist logs onto gasbuddy.com and punches in the prices and locations for thousands of other motorists around Southern California to review and compare.
Hanable is a part of a small but growing subculture that has formed as gas prices approach record levels.
Hoping to save a few pennies on a gallon of $3-plus gasoline, motorists are turning to a variety of websites where fellow commuters post current prices at hundreds of stations.
The information on these sites is compiled solely by users, many of whom describe their efforts as a public service and a rare chance to gain a small advantage on big oil.
"I feel like I'm being pistol-whipped every time I go buy fuel," said Mitchell Meyer, a computer repairman from San Pedro who posts prices from his neighborhood gas stations every week on losangelesgasprices.com. "It's disgusting. I feel like we're really taken advantage of."
Meyer and others said the value of their efforts becomes clear when they see the wide price ranges the volunteer researchers have uncovered.
On Wednesday, for example, gasbuddy.com listed gas stations in Long Beach, Pasadena and South El Monte still selling regular for just under $3 a gallon, posted by tipsters "MarkyMark" and "Ciscodude." By contrast, tipster "twolincoln27" listed a station near downtown Los Angeles selling gas for $3.39 a gallon.
While oil experts have long said gas stations along the Southern California coast tend to have higher prices than those inland, the websites suggest little pattern for the prices. Lists of the cheapest and most expensive gas include both chain and independent stations scattered around the region.
Few people are willing to drive far out of their way to save a few cents, because of the fuel it takes to get there.
But users say the websites help them find the cheapest gas along the routes they normally travel.
"If I'm driving somewhere, I'll check the gas prices first, so I'll know where I can find cheap gasoline," said Alfred Diaz, a retired Boeing Co. cost estimator from San Dimas who has been posting gas prices on the Web for several years.
Recently, he filled up at a station at Associated Road and Imperial Highway in Brea, where the price was nearly 10 cents a gallon cheaper than near his home.
Diaz has enlisted his wife to jot down prices during her commute to Mount San Antonio College in Walnut. Even his daughter has joined in as she looks for a teaching job.
"Basically, when we go anywhere, I have them take notes as I drive," he said. "I have the stuff printed out in Excel format for a lot of areas, so I all I have to do is go down the line and fill in the blanks."
This week his daughter had to drive to Culver City, so Diaz got on the Internet. He suggested she take the Pomona Freeway and stop at a station in South El Monte to buy gas because it was selling for 10 cents less than in San Dimas.
"She got gasoline for $2.99 a gallon," Diaz said.
Gasbuddy.com is believed to be the largest gas-price collector, with 850,000 registered users in 170 cities nationwide, including Los Angeles.
Gasbuddy.com has about a million visitors a day, fewer than in the months right after Hurricane Katrina but on the rise, said Jason Toews, co-founder with Dustin Coupal of the Minneapolis-based site.
Gasbuddy.com receives from 800 to 1,000 postings a day in Los Angeles County. Anyone found submitting inaccurate information is banned from the site, Toews said.
Other sites are gaspricewatch.com, fuelmeup.com and gastips.com.
News radio station KFWB-AM (980) invites listeners to call in with prices they see at gas stations. In turn, those prices are verified and some are read over the air throughout the day, said production assistant B.J. Kindred.
Taking the desire to find cheap gas a step further, Jason Barry, 17, a junior at Santa Monica High School, has created an application for Apple computers that allows users to find the cheapest gas within a 20-mile radius from a ZIP Code area.
A computer user enters a ZIP Code, the grade of gas (regular, premium or diesel) and mile radius. Then the program fetches data from gaspricewatch.com.
Although some longtime watchers believe there is no rhyme or reason to the various gas prices, others keep looking for a pattern. Some say that gas in lower-income areas is generally cheaper than in high-income areas.
James Freedner, who collects price information as he rides his motorcycle from his Sun Valley home to his job as a legal secretary in Beverly Hills, thinks freeways play a role.
"Gas right by the freeway is expensive. So if you know the area a little bit, that's important," he said.
Freedner is now branching out, posting prices he sees during out-of-town trips.
"If I go to Fresno, I'll post on the local site," he said. "Maybe it helps travelers."