People are kind of predictable. As the accompanying chart graphically reveals, searches for “electric cars” tend to follow gas price spikes on Yahoo! Such searches were up 55 percent this month alone, and "hybrid car" searches have also made huge gains. It's equally remarkable that searches for "gas prices" scrape along at low levels but when prices go up, the search spikes are really dramatic.

It’s pretty clear that people are worried about gas prices, and why not when the Christian Science Monitor leads with a headline on $5 a gallon: “Is it Around the Corner for U.S. Drivers This Summer?” The story was accompanied by the inevitable photo of a gas station sign showing $4.99 for regular, and $5.19 for Supreme (in Washington, D.C. on April 20). For many people, $5 is already here.

The Yahoo! chart (below) taps into something. Gas prices have risen 36 percent over the last year, and that’s created high anxiety all over the place. The obvious refuge: clean cars. Baum and Associates reports that “high gas prices and a recovering economy” led to a 46 percent jump in hybrid and clean diesel sales last month from the same period in 2010. In fact, the company concluded that small, highly efficient cars now occupy seven percent of the market, about the same market share as big (not crossover) SUVs. The sales of those cars are now growing at three times the rate of the overall market.

The “winners” on the chart: small crossovers, very small and small cars and (the biggest gainer) hybrids, up nearly 50 percent compared to a year ago. Hybrids are now 2.5 percent of the American car market, still a niche but growing fast. Very small cars are 3.6 percent of the market.

With electric cars, let’s say they’re still looking. A new study by Deloitte says that 78 percent of the 1,000 American consumers it surveyed would consider buying an electric vehicle when gas reached $5 a gallon. Wow, that’s a lot. But these are the same people who are kicking the tires online, surfing the web in search of a green car they like. Auto practice leader Craig Giffi told me that there aren’t nearly as many people actually willing to buy right now. The “first movers”? Well, that’s only 12 percent of the total.

It’s very early days for electric vehicles, but nobody needs to make a radical leap when they buy a gas car that gets 40 mpg on the highway. The recent New York Auto Show demonstrated clearly that automakers tend to give them multiple options in that category, including the new Chevrolet Malibu Eco, the diesel version of the new Volkswagen Beetle, Hyundai Elantra, upcoming Mazda3, a revised Honda Civic Hybrid and high-mileage HF, and many more.

If you’re shopping for a car now, in the showrooms or on the web, don’t settle for less than 40 mpg on the highway, whether it’s a hybrid or not.

Oh, and $5 a gallon? They're already paying it in LA, too. See the painful truth on video:

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