Does any topic combine pain and boredom in a more efficient manner than car insurance? It ranks right up there with doing your taxes. But whereas you've got to think about the IRS every April whether you want to or not, it's tempting to put car insurance permanently out of mind, something to file away with the deed to your house and your high school diploma.

Tempting, that is, until your rates go up again. Faced with enough hikes in a row, consumers tend to revolt, which is what they did in California several years ago.

Proposition 103, which demanded a 20 percent rollback on premiums, a one-year freeze on rate increases, a 20 percent discount for good drivers -- everything, it seemed, except that insurance offices be burned to the ground -- was a hit with voters but bitterly fought by the companies, who took it to court and diluted its impact.

Subsequently, the pace of reform has slackened. From the point of view of the insurers, this is terrific news. "I think the industry to a large degree feels if it ain't broke, don't fix it," says a spokesman for the Insurance Information Institute, a trade group.

Broke, however, is exactly what many of the insured are beginning to feel. Locally, the picture is relatively bleak: In one recent survey, Maryland ranked 12th nationally in size of premiums; Virginia was 33rd. The District was not included, but seeing as how it's all high-density urban driving, the likelihood is it would have challenged New Jersey for the top honors.

"There's a perception that auto rates have climbed to the point of being unaffordable, and people are very, very frustrated. They don't see any tangible benefits for paying out increasing amounts of money," says Robin Campaniano, chair of the National Association of Insurance Commissioners' personal-lines committee, which includes automobiles.

Over the past decade, the cost of auto insurance has jumped more than twice as much as consumer prices. Among the primary reasons: the escalating prices for new cars and the soaring fees to repair them. Then there's the zooming tab for medical care.

Insurance companies, meanwhile, are not in business as a public service, and are complaining that it's difficult to make money with automobiles. Retrenchment in the field is going to make it more difficult for those folks with poor driving records to get coverage. The good news is that consumers with unblemished histories have more flexibility than they may realize. A series of charts published in "Virginia Auto Insurance Consumer's Guide" by the Virginia State Corporation Commission's Bureau of Insurance makes this clear.

The charts give sample premiums for the commonwealth's 50 largest companies, showing, for instance, that an unmarried 20-year-old female living in Alexandria will pay $4,566 annually for coverage with Integon General but only $625 with Erie Insurance Exchange. If you switched from the first to the second, in a couple of years you'd be able to afford a new BMW. (The District and Maryland issue similar but less comprehensive rate charts.)

Why does Integon cost so much? Rick Pierce, property and casualty sales manager for the Winston-Salem, N.C., firm, says the Virginia regulators "were just picking a snapshot, and it was not a very good one for us ... There's no doubt you can find cheaper insurance from someone else, in that particular case. In that territory, we need to charge the rate we do."

That's because Integon is a "non-standard" automobile insurer. "We specialize in insuring higher-risk drivers, including high-performance vehicles, people who have DUI charges or have had accidents where they were at fault," says Pierce. The higher risk is reflected in the higher premium.

At Erie Insurance Exchange, on the other hand, drivers rarely get in accidents, meaning rates can be kept low. The catch: if you have a lousy or even an untested record, they won't take you on in the first place.

For a more favored category of driver, a 45-year-old married adult, there's a similar spread. State Farm Mutual is listed with a sample Alexandria premium of $497, while Bankers & Shippers is almost four times as much: $1,927. The moral is, you should get insurance at the cheapest company that provides what you're looking for.

The chart has some caveats: Just because a company offers cheaper insurance in one region or for one age group doesn't mean it is cheaper in other locations and categories, too. Integon General's premiums, for instance, fall more than 40 percent if you move to rural Charlotte County. That still makes them pricey, but no longer the tops in the market.

A third explanation for the disparity, says Campaniano, is that "the companies themselves really don't know what they're doing. That's the nature of insurance: It protects against a future occurrence.

"You go into Nordstrom to buy a shirt, the store knows exactly what it cost them. They can price within a couple dollars of the competition. But insurance companies don't know until some time in the future how much they'll be paying out. They all have different ideas about what it will be, and that's why you get such variability."

Other reasons some companies have high prices can be that they have high overheads or are inefficiently run. Or it can be a marketing ploy: they're trying to tailor their business so they have few unmarried male drivers, which is considered the riskiest group to insure. So they boost the premiums for that category.

The most important rule, then, for auto insurance is this: Shop around. Ask for price quotes from several companies, giving them all the same information about the coverage you want. The forms they use tend to be standardized, but the prices probably won't be.

Early in the game, you'll have to decide how you want to buy your insurance: mail-order, through a company agent, or via an independent agent. A rough estimate is that independent agents are more than a third of the market, while company agents are the largest portion of the remainder. But if direct-mail selling has been small and principally geared toward such cohesive groups as the military, teachers or senior citizens, it's on the rise for the mass market: companies are not immune to complaints about soaring premiums, and direct-selling tends to be cheaper for all concerned.

The difference between going to an independent agent and dealing directly with a company, says Campaniano, "is like going down to a butcher as opposed to a supermarket. Do you want the kind of service that a butcher will give you? You'll probably pay more, but he'll give you the cut you want ... Insurance companies that use agents tend to have to pass on the costs of commissions."

Stephen Brobeck, executive director of the Consumer Federation of America, believes that "most consumers could find a lower premium. But there are so many insurers and agents listed in the phone book that they don't know where to start, and they don't understand auto insurance well enough to ask the agent intelligent questions."

Furthermore, he says, "people believe independent agents comparison-shop all insurers. But while independents sell six or seven policies, they tend to have a close relationship with only one or two companies. People should also remember that legally, the agent represents the insurer, not the consumer." It's not enough, then, just to go to one independent agent.

No matter whom you end up with, a portion of your premiums will be determined by something out of your control: your neighborhood, or sometimes your town, county or Zip code. Urban drivers always pay more, frequently by quite a bit. The insurers' argument: Why should someone who lives on a farm and only drives 10 miles to the market every other day have to pay the same as someone who braves 50 miles on the Beltway every morning and night?

Territorial rating was one of the points of contention in the California revolt. Consumers there argued that the site of their homes should matter less than individual records. It's also frequently asserted that territorial rating tends to punish the inner-city poor. Since insurance for their neighborhoods is priced out of reach, they drive without it -- which doesn't help anyone when there's an accident.

Along with your neighborhood, there are other rate-determining factors difficult to affect: marital status (singles pay more), age (youth counts against drivers), and gender (the bill is higher for guys). But there are several things you can shift, beginning with the extent of your coverage.

This is the hardest part of the insurance game, partly because it comprises so many elements: the liability coverage that protects you when you hit somebody and are at fault; the medical benefits payments that cover injuries; collision coverage, which handles damage caused by impact with another vehicle, and the related comprehensive coverage, which deals with damage caused by everything else, from theft to fire; and the uninsured motorist provisions, which take responsibility if you're hit by someone without insurance.

Some pointers from consumer activists: The medical side of things may be less necessary if you're already adequately covered by your job, but don't stint on the liability section. The more you've got to lose, the more you need.

"If you're single, just starting out in life, and driving a clunker, it's overkill to have $500,000 liability," says Campaniano. "Even if someone sues you for everything, you don't have any assets to protect. But if you're a heart surgeon with a beautiful house and two or three Mercedes and you nail someone, you're going to get sued for everything you got."

Deductibles for collision and comprehensive coverage also bear thinking about. The more of your own repair costs you're willing to assume, the lower your rates. If you're driving an old car you might want to drop collision coverage altogether, since the insurer is only going to pay up to the car's book value.

For the typical car, says National Association of Insurance Commissioners spokesman Kevin Hennosy, "there is a very good argument, especially in an urban area, for having a relatively high deductible. It will lower your rates. But you have to take into account whether you can pay out of your own pocket to get a disabled car back on the road. If you can't, that's a strong motivation to carry a lower deductible and pay the higher premium."

When any of these topics are being discussed with the insurer and you realize you have no idea what's going on, start asking questions. "Insurance is a terribly complicated subject," says Campaniano, "and it's made even more complex by not asking questions. There's nothing wrong with saying you don't understand a policy. Insurance shouldn't be treated as something mystical."