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PHILADELPHIA -- Jason Toews, a 30-year-old computer programmer from the Minneapolis suburbs, started the nonprofit GasBuddy Organization Inc. four years ago with a friend, chronicling regular unleaded prices in the Twin Cities. The site was so successful that he and co-founder Dustin Coupal, an ophthalmologist, expanded nationwide.
Now, the gasbuddy.com portal links to 173 price-comparison Web sites with names like phillygasprices.com, wichitagasprices.com and miamigasprices.com, with 50 more local sites coming online this fall.
Price-sensitive motorists are flocking to the Internet to shave their gas bills -- and, perhaps equally important, for the psychological satisfaction of knowing they have some control over what they pay.
"I'm cheap. I'm not paying more for something than I have to," said Christina Klein, who uses the Philadelphia site daily and doesn't mind driving a little out of her way if it means saving a few pennies per gallon.
The GasBuddy network surveys an average of 150,000 stations per week in the United States and Canada. At phillygasprices.com, volunteers check hundreds of Philadelphia-area gas stations per week and post their findings on the Web; prices are automatically sorted from lowest to highest.
When gas shot up to more than $2 a gallon earlier this summer, traffic to the GasBuddy sites increased sevenfold, to about 500,000 unique visitors a day, Toews said. It has since dropped to 150,000 to 200,000 a day -- although that could spike again if gas prices rise, as many analysts expect.
Another Internet site, for-profit GasPriceWatch.com, also reported an increase in traffic, with a peak of 300,000 visitors on June 6. "Our participation is directly proportional to the price of gasoline," said Brad Proctor, founder of GasPriceWatch.com. The Web sites work similarly, relying on volunteers to report prices and advertisers to either pay the bills or turn a profit. Visitors enter their zip codes to find prices at nearby stations.
About 270,000 people have registered as volunteer gas price reporters for GasBuddy. Some people post prices once or twice a month, while others are fanatical about the site, reporting every day, Toews said.