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Maybe I notice so many Toyota Priuses on the road because I now know what they look like. I bought one in January, and since then it seems like I see them all the time. But a lot of people are driving this odd-looking gas miser, and there are two very good reasons for it. Gas prices are at record levels and this year you get a sweet credit for buying a hybrid car. The Prius tax credit typically exceeds $3,000.

The Prius is proof positive that money can turn just about anyone into a tree hugger. Priuses are selling like hotcakes because they make financial sense. And this time it looks like gas prices aren't just having a spike. They're likely to remain high.

Having said all that, buyers should know that the Prius comes equipped with a cultural baggage compartment. It's impossible to drive this car and not feel like a earnest conservationist. Your "geek? factor rises considerably. A colleague of mine at KPBS, whom I saw pull up in a Prius at a recent social event, was quick to tell me that it was "her husband's car.?

This is definitely NOT your preferred ride if you're trying to keep it sexy.

The thing about this car that's truly remarkable - or insidious, depending on your point of view - is how it focuses your mind on MPGs. The Prius has a small computer screen in the center of the dashboard that tells you how high your gas mileage is at each moment. So you can sit behind the wheel and watch your MPGs zoom up to 100, then plummet to 25, then hop up to 50, all in a matter of seconds.

The computer also averages your gas mileage over whatever length of time you choose. I usually zero my MPG gauge whenever I fill the gas tank. With one eye on the road and one eye on the computer you feel the elation as your average ticks upward by one tenth of an MPG. "Come on baby!? you tell your dashboard. "We're at 44.7. Give me 44.8!!?

I know this sounds pathetic. But there is a serious lesson taught by the Prius consumption monitor. The way you drive makes a big difference when you're trying to stretch a gallon of gas. Nixon was right. Capping freeway speeds at 55 miles an hour would save a hell of a lot of gas. Accelerating slowly and coasting to stops also helps the cause.

Prius owners may be geeks. But I say it's better to be a geek than a whiner. And I'm tired of hearing people complain about high gas prices. We all make choices in our lives, and a lot of folks have chosen to have an hour-long commute or to drive a gas guzzler. I'm not necessarily saying that they've made bad choices. But they shouldn't claim to be victims of injustice now that gas prices are over three dollars a gallon.

So the next time I stop at a light, across from a fellow hybrid car owner, I'll give him or her a knowing salute. Harley-Davidson riders do it. So why not MPG nerds?

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