THE COLLAPSE of Rhode Island's private deposit insurance system for banks and savings institutions is unlikely to be duplicated in this area. That's because Maryland's parallel insurance scheme collapsed five years ago, and now such accounts in the state are federally insured, making bank depositors less vulnerable. Virginia and the District do not have privately insured banks or savings institutions.

All this, of course, is cold comfort to area commercial banks now struggling with troubled commercial real estate loan portfolios and dreary profit-and-loss statements. This deterioration comes as many familiar local banking landmarks have disappeared. Just in a few years, McLachlen National Bank, Security National Bank, National Savings and Trust Co., D.C. National, National Bank of Commerce, United National Bank -- all in the District -- have been swallowed, mostly by Maryland and Virginia financial giants, which possess plenty of sour loans themselves. The city's oldest bank, The National Bank of Washington, was declared insolvent last August and sold to Riggs. MNC Financial Inc. of Baltimore, owner of second-largest American Security, is seeking approval to move ASB's headquarters to the Maryland suburbs where it will be merged with and then operated in the city as a division of Maryland National. MNC itself, with more than $1 billion in problem loans, struggles to survive.

The downturn in the region's economy could bring more bad news. And as banks begin an overdue tightening of lending standards, it may spell more layoffs and higher service fees. Yet this is not the time for consumers to fill out deposit withdrawal slips. The Federal Deposit Insurance Fund, despite its weakened condition, remains solvent, and a major replenishment effort is due to begin in earnest this year.

FDIC insurance, however, has made depositors less discerning. Customers need to become more aware of their bank's financial condition, especially since all banks are not in the same predicament. Federally insured banks submit reports to the FDIC each quarter on their financial performance, and the FDIC sells them to the public for a small fee. The Federal Financial Institutions Examinations Council also sells, on request, the Uniform Bank Performance Report, which discloses a wealth of information about a bank's historical performance and financial condition, including how the bank stacks up against its peers in size and by location. Evaluations by private rating firms can also help smart consumers answer questions about the state of their banks.