(MoneyWatch) When it comes to buying basic liability coverage -- the type of coverage required by law in 49 states -- you'll pay more if you're single, poor and less educated. It doesn't matter how well you drive.
In fact, drivers who had at-fault accidents, but had a spouse, a college degree, continuous insurance coverage and home ownership paid less -- sometimes dramatically less -- than a single receptionist with a high school education and a perfect driving record, according to a new survey by Consumer Federation of America.
"State insurance regulators should require auto insurers to explain why they believe factors such as education and income are better predictors of losses than are at-fault accidents," said J. Robert Hunter, CFA's director of insurance.
CFA priced policies in 12 cities with the nation's five largest insurers -- State Farm, Allstate, Farmers, GEICO and Progressive -- which account for more than 50% of the auto insurance market. The study looked at the cost of buying a bare-bones policy for two drivers, who were the same in several key respects: age, gender, location, car and miles driven.
However, to see whether demographic factors were more important than driving record, the hypothetical 30-year-old woman (who drives a 2002 Honda Civic 7,500 miles each year and buys only the minimum liability coverage), varied in other key respects:
One driver is a single receptionist, with only a high school education. She rents her home and allowed her insurance coverage to lapse before applying for this policy. However, she has a perfect driving record with no tickets or accidents.
The other driver is married, has a master degree, an executive-level job and owns a home. However, she's had an at-fault accident that caused her to make an $800 insurance claim.
Who pays the most? It varies by location and insurer, but in most cases, it was the receptionist with the perfect driving record. In fact, when CFA ran rates for these two drivers in Baltimore, Allstate quoted the receptionist a $3,292 annual rate --164% more than they'd charge her married, highly educated twin.
The only insurance company that consistently didn't charge the less educated woman more was State Farm, which appeared to put far more weight into the subject's driving record than her demographics. Whether Allstate charged the good driver with less education more varied city-to-city. However, the other three insurers either charged more to the receptionist or would not even quote her a rate. The executive could get a rate quote in every instance.
These bare-bones polices -- required by law in every state but New Hampshire -- were extremely costly in many cities, particularly for the receptionist, according to the study. In Tampa, for example, none of these insurers quoted a rate below $1,748 for the receptionist, although the executive could by a policy for $1,020.
In Baltimore, the lowest-cost policy ran $822 for the receptionist and $652 for the executive. In Washington D.C. the cheapest policy set the receptionist back $760; the executive would pay just $554 for the same coverage.
A spokesman for the American Insurance Association said that insurers use a wide array of factors to price policies, including driving record, marital status and education to "help them more accurately price risk." However, the factors, and the weights they're given, vary from insurer to insurer.
Indeed, although the CFA study aimed to highlight how seemingly extraneous demographic factors could trump driving record when it came to policy prices, it also highlighted just how much rates vary from one company to the next, even when the information about the driver and automobile is identical.
In Cleveland, Allstate would charge the receptionist $1,072. But she could buy the same policy for just $436 from State Farm. The executive, meanwhile, would pay $1,744 for the policy if she bought it from Farmers, but could get a $362 rate by going with GEICO.
In Phoenix, the receptionist would pay $1,304 if she insured with Progressive, but just $480 with State Farm. The executive, meanwhile, would get her lowest rate from GEICO -- $366 -- and receive the highest quote from Allstate ($1,228).
Consumers can see the entire study at CFA's web site here. However, says AIA's spokesman Will Rijksen: "Consumers are well-advised to shop around to find the coverage that best meets their individual needs."