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A funny thing happened when drivers flexed their political muscle a few years ago to hold down the rise in auto-insurance premiums.

Those political movements succeeded, through a public referendum (in California) or through pressure on state insurance departments. Helped, too, by low inflation rates, premiums have flattened out or are rising more slowly.

But I've always believed that, over the long run, you can't hold down prices by passing laws, and auto insurance has proved no exception. The companies found a more subtle way of charging many drivers more.

They've done it by tightening up on the way they evaluate you for risk. A smaller proportion of applicants are being identified as "preferred" the category that carries the lowest premium rates.

A lot of drivers who might once have been "preferred" are now classified as "standard," forcing them to pay anywhere from 10 percent to 60 percent more, depending on the company, their driving record and other factors.

Some of those formerly in the lower tier of the standard class have been kicked down into the category called "nonstandard."

"Classically, the nonstandard market was the drunk driver," says Robert Wallach, chairman of The Robert Plan Corp. in Uniondale, N.Y., which specializes in nonstandard risks. "Now, one or two speeding tickets can get you into nonstandard. You might even be nonstandard without a ticket. It's the fastest-growing group.''

In theory, the percentage of drivers seen as "preferred" should be going up, Wallach says. Cars are safer. Roads are safer. People take drunk driving more seriously than they used to. Demographically, there's a bulge of middle-aged drivers, who have fewer accidents than the young.

While conceding that the percentage of preferred drivers is going down, many in the industry say it's because they have better ways of identifying risks.

They're using elaborate computer screening to compare the risk of accidents not only with drivers' ages, driving records and chosen cars but also with life circumstances, such as job, credit history and whether you keep a cell phone in the car. (To paraphrase an old slogan, "Stay alive, don't phone and drive.")

There are two other electronic systems used for identifying risk.

When you apply for coverage, insurers automatically run your name through the state motor vehicle department to check whether you're licensed, what marks you may have on your license and how many licensed drivers live at your address.

It may also check the Comprehensive Loss Underwriting Exchange (C.L.U.E.) in Atlanta, where insurers report the claims you've made over the past five years.

Wallach describes a "preferred" risk as "no young males or females driving the cars, no high-performance vehicles, no accidents of any sort (even if they're not your fault) and, at most, one minor violation say, failing to obey a "yield sign."

But every insurer may evaluate the data a little differently. If you're offered a standard rate when you think you ought to be preferred, ask an independent agent to hunt for a company that agrees with you.

Then compare that rate with what you can get from a company like State Farm, which doesn't sell through the independents, and from companies that insure better drivers by phone and mail. Two such: Geico Direct (800-841-3000), in all states but Massachusetts and New Jersey; and 20th Century (800-211-SAVE), for drivers in California and Arizona. (Geico is also moving into standard and substandard risks.)

You'll find wide differences in price, even if all the insurers put you in the same risk category.

On the bright side, many insurers are taking a second look at drivers they used to dump in state risk pools. For example, say you caused a couple of accidents in the past three years or caught a couple of speeding tickets in the past two years.

Formerly, you might have been forced to buy your insurance from a high-priced risk pool. Now you're more likely to be accepted as a standard risk, says David Harris, vice president of auto underwriting for State Farm.

Your premium will still be relatively high but not as high as it was before.

So that's another reason for the growth in the standard- and nonstandard-risk categories. More insurers are willing to take such drivers, because of the profit there.

The specialists in nonstandard risks include Allstate Indemnity, Dairyland, Integon and Progressive, Harris says. Progressive can give you a quote by phone at 800-AUTO PRO, 24 hours a day, for standard and preferred risks, too.

Wallach thinks that prices charged for standard and nonstandard policies are peaking, due to the fierce new competition. Robert Plan, for example, is moving into standard risks, too. It's all-out warfare there, which should be good for drivers in the end.

Free market health insurance

Here's what we know so far about how health care fares in a free market. Competition does not reward high quality. Instead, it rewards low cost.

I don't mean to suggest that cost-saving dooms first-rate medical treatment. Efficiency can serve quality, as long as the medical judgments are truly made in the patient's interest.

But you can't be sure that's always the case. Employers pick health plans based on service and price. They may get assurances of quality from the plans that bid for their business. But there's no proof.

You think I'm being too tough? Consider the 6-year-old accreditation program for managed-care plans run by the nonprofit National Committee for Quality Assurance (NCQA). It's considered a floor for what a quality plan should offer.

So far, 18 percent of all health maintenance organizations (HMOs) have received full accreditation, another 17 percent have temporary accreditation of some kind and 4 percent have flunked. Nearly 50 percent haven't bothered to apply.

I asked health-industry analyst Douglas Sherlock, of the Sherlock Co. in Gwynedd, Pa., what difference accreditation makes to an HMO's success. The answer: zip, zero, none.

Syndicated columnist Jane Bryant Quinn can be reached in care of the Washington Post Writers Group, 1150 15th St., Washington D.C. 20071-9200.

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