In most people's minds insurance stands right up there with motherhood and apple pie. And in a time of crisis a good policy becomes a sort of ersatz father, administering quick monetary salves to the wounds of trauma or death.

Like some mothers, fathers and pies, however, insurance and its purveyors often fall short of the mark. Even the most reputable agents deal with a conflict-of-interest situation. What yields the most for them can be a pretty bum deal for the buyer.

"To most people insurance is boring and complicated," says Robert Hunter, president of the National Insurance Consumer Organization (NICO). "In such a market fear often gets the upper hand.

"Take cancer insurance. Sales really went up in the aftermath of Three Mile Island.

"With a good health-insurance plan," claims Hunter, a former Federal Insurance Administrator who now makes his living as an insurance consultant stabbing away at many of the industry's most cherished tenets and gimmicks, "no one needs cancer insurance." It adds, he says, little to overall protection and, what can be worse, requires proof that the cancer is life-threatening. Such proof could entail otherwise unnecessary exploratory surgery.

Setting the bad buys aside, what do you need?

"Think comprehensive and think catastrophic," advises Hunter. "If the event the policy protects you from wouldn't shatter your pocketbook, however much it might tear up your psyche, don't fall for the salesman's pitch. Invest the money you save in an interest-bearing slush fund, to cover all the minor pitfalls for which the insurance costs are disproportionately high."

You need life insurance if you have children or other dependents who couldn't provide for themselves. Hunter says to remember, though, that children, singles, childless couples or those whose offspring have grown up do not need life insurance as much as they need good financial planning.

NICO tells family breadwinners to cover themselves at roughly five times their annual gross earnings. They should buy annual renewable-term (ART) policies at the lowest possible rates, invest their savings and gradually substitute other investments for insurance.

The five-times-earnings rule does not apply, of course, if pensions include survivors' benefits, or if investments or anticipated inheritance are sure to yield a sufficient replacement income.

Hunter recommends ART to the virtual exclusion of any other life insurance. Whole-life policies, he maintains, cost too much and yield too little.

Why do insurance agents often push the guilt-edge policies? Because, Hunter says, they yield far higher commissions than the more humble ARTs.

Although a life insurance add-on--mortgage insurance--often looks like a good deal and some lenders market such insurance as part of the financing package, don't bite, he says. Mortgage insurance lacks flexibility. You may not want to pay off a mortgage, even if the presumed breadwinner dies.

"Stay with the comprehensive concept," Hunter stresses, "and away from the bits and pieces."

Except by handing in your license, there's no responsible way to escape auto insurance, apt to be the biggest insurance bugaboo in a lot of people's minds. Young males drive the costs up; claims drive the costs up; traffic violations drive the costs up; actuarial tables sometimes drive the costs up, even for an accident-free driver. What's worse, in the Washington area there is no law to force companies to insure statistically unsafe drivers at the lowest rates.

Hunter, representing NICO, lobbies against the right of insurance companies to base rates of auto or life insurance on sex.

Even when a family specifies that its young male member drives only one car, and the oldest car at that, companies usually base their rates on "the highest cost driver of the highest rated car," Hunter claims. "Then they turn around and adjust their actuarial tables to show the young man at fault no matter who in the family has an accident."

Although Hunter wants to "get the sexism out of insurance," he is not otherwise against adjusting insurance costs to risks. He observes that women would pay less even under a gender-neutral policy because they drive less--at all ages. If rates were based on that criterion, women would be the winners in auto insurance their lives through.

When you shop for car insurance, Hunter suggests that you use State Farm rates as your basis of comparison. Once you've determined the best bargain, keep costs down by setting high deductibles, avoiding collision insurance on marginal cars and paying small claims yourself.

House insurance? Hunter's rule of thumb: Subtract the cost of the lot--and the foundation--and insure for 80 percent of the replacement value of the remainder. Eighty percent insurance yields full coverage of partial loss; any less insurance does not. Although it's as simple as that, Hunter says agents inevitably push for higher coverage. The buyer's costs increase proportionately; the insurer's risks stay about the same since houses seldom burn to the ground.

Hunter recommends that renters fork up the small cost of a renter's $300,000 policy to cover their belongings and accidents that may occur in their rented quarters.

Finally, warns Hunter, do not forget you might become too disabled to work. Although many companies and the federal government do include disability pensions in their employe pay packages, Hunter warns that many other employers do not.

If your disability plan--which he calls the most neglected insurance of all--wouldn't cover about 70 percent of your income, he would like to see you out insurance shopping today.