"Not all companies will sell to everyone," says Stephen Brobeck of the Consumer Federation of America. "Increasingly, some cream-skim. On the other hand, if you're a low-risk driver, you can obtain a low-price policy from a cream-skimmer."

The rules for being considered a low-risk driver: don't get in any accidents, don't get any tickets and don't submit a lot of claims.

Discounts are possible for senior citizens, who don't drive as much as younger folk and tend to drive more safely when they do. Students who get good grades -- and thus presumably establish themselves as sober-minded -- can get better rates than those who don't. Drivers of all ages who take refresher courses on safety; use their cars sparingly; install alarms and other anti-theft devices; have air bags or automatic seat belts; or sometimes just stay with a particular company for a long time may get a break.

"We recommend that people price insurance before they purchase a car," says Brobeck. "There are particularly substantial differences in premiums for new cars. It's not simply that the most expensive cars carry the most expensive insurance. Cars frequently stolen will tend to have high premiums, and that's also true for models that are difficult to repair."

Some other questions to ask potential insurers: Is there a multi-car discount available? Are there discounts if you get other types of insurance, such as homeowner's, from the same company?

For families with teen-age drivers and more than one car, inquire about assigning particular vehicles to particular drivers. You might be able to link a higher-risk driver (i.e., your hot-rodding 16-year-old) to the lower-value automobile. A more complicated variation on this involves sharing cars between drivers, so you have one parent assigned to the lower-value car as principal driver, with the teenager as secondary driver.

"This lets the company know the parent is going to be driving that car most of the time," explains a spokesman for the National Association of Insurance Commissioners. "They're worried about the risk of that car being in an accident, and if they know a more responsible, lower-risk person is going to be operating it more often than a higher-risk driver, they can rate accordingly. Not all companies will do this, but ask to see if it's possible." For a copy of "Virginia Auto Insurance Consumer's Guide," write State Corporation Commission, Bureau of Insurance, Box 1157, Richmond, Va. 23209.

Maryland offers much briefer pamphlets keyed to various parts of the state. These have less detailed but still useful rate tables. The November 1990 Montgomery County pamphlet, for instance, lists a range for the 45-year-old married male from $260 with United Services Automobile Association, a military-specialist insurer, to $1,394 from Indemnity Insurance Company of North America. For a copy write Department of Licensing and Regulation, Insurance Division, 501 St. Paul Place, Baltimore, Md. 21202.

The District has an even more perfunctory pamphlet, available in both English and Spanish, giving sample rates for 13 companies. Write the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs, Insurance Administration, P.O. Box 37200, Washington, D.C. 20013.

A general overview of insurance, including automobiles, can be found in "Winning the Insurance Game" (Knightsbridge), by Ralph Nader and Wesley Smith.