Drivers, home owners and businessmen from across the country told Congress yesterday that insurance companies - big and small - discriminate against them because of their sex or where they live.

A Los Angeles County official called it "the consumer crisis of the century, and the public is mad."

Sen. Howard Metzenbaum (D-Ohio), opening two days of hearings on "insurance redlining" - the practice of setting rates based on factors beyond the control of the policy holder - said Congress must reconsider its 1945 exemption of the insurance industry from federal antitrust laws.

"In pursuit of the ideal policy holder, many property and casualty insurance companies appear to be employing practices that exclude large segments of cities and whole classes of consumers regardless of the loss records of individuals," said Metzenbaum, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Citizens and Shareholders Rights and Remedies.

Metzenbaum said the subcommittee's investigation has turned up insurance company underwriting guides which either prohibit or sharply limit coverage to divorcees, single persons, cooks, longshoremen, musicians, professional athletes and military personnel.

Young people - especially males - also pay high rates, but a study conducted by the National Association of Insurance Commissioners discovered that 89 per cent of male drivers under 25 never have filed an insurance claim.

There was no immediate comment from the insurance companies, but industry witnesses were scheduled to testify on Wednesday.

There has been an insurance curtain drawn in american to prevent average auto policy holders, who are good drivers, from understanding why they are paying such high rates," said Los Angeles County Supervisor Kenneth Hahn. "The fact is they are being ripped off by the biggest companies in America."

He said a resident of Watts, a black community, with a good driving record pays $960 a year in auto insurance "while drivers with the same record pay $385 in San Diego County and $188 in Milwaukee.

The city and county governments of Los Angeles have opened a court battle accusing the big insurance companies of geographical discrimination.

Hahn said independent studies conducted by his office show that rates for various categories of drivers bear no connection to actual driving records but are based on place of residance, occupation, income, race, or other factors. He said insurance rates should be based on nothing but the person's record as a driver.

Joseph Ciampa, 21, a Boston machinist, testified that his insurance was raised from $1,400 a year to $2,809 by the Electric Insurance Co. simply because of his age and the fact that he lives in East Boston. He had no accident record at the time of the increase.

Irma Carroll of Raleigh, N.C., told the subcommittee that Allstate Insurance Co. tried to charge her $339.50 a year for insurance that had been $189 with another company only because she had been widowed. She got the rate reduced to $182.40 after complaining to the state insurance commission.

Four servicemen and service women testified that they were charged extra for car insurance because they are in the military.

A number of witnesses, including Barbara Pertz of Cleveland, also desribed insurance redlining in which well-built, stable middle-income neighborhoods are charged higher insurance rates or denied mortgage and fire insurance simply because of the age of the houses.

Metzenbaum said that, with few exceptions - Massachusetts and North Carolina among them - there is little effective regulation of the insurance industry.