LOOKING FOR a quick route to the poorhouse? Try any street in Washington, where roughly half of the motorists are cruising about without any insurance. Any one of these drivers could cause an accident injuring you -- and sticking you with financially devastating medical bills. If that isn't frightening enough, consider what happens if you're hit by a driver who is insured under the current system.

Because the city has yet to approve a no-fault automobile insurance system, accident victims -- as well as those motorists who pay for "coverage" -- are being taken to the clearners by the legal system. Instead of quick compensation to accident victims under a nofault program, everyone -- the motorist who plays the preminums, the person who is injured and the insurance company -- wind up with fat fees going to lawyers, late and unfair payoffs for the victims and increases in preminums to cover all this time-consuming, unnecessary legal work.

Instead of lawyers' pocketing thousands of dollars from this old-fashioned sue-or-settle arrangement, a no-fault system would compensate victims more completely more equitably and faster. That is why those lawyers who specialize in auto-accident cases are fighting to preserve the old system -- and why it should be abolished. It is also why groups of consumers, older people, business associations and labor groups are supporting no-fault bills introduced in the D.C. Council by Chairman Arrington Dixon and member Betty Ann Kane.

One of the worst arguments used against no-fault is that it will somehow ruin black lawyers who rely on auto accidents for fees -- and never mind how their fees may hurt black victims of accidents, or anybody of any color who loses out under the current system. This is not a racial matter, but a financial one. Besides, Washington is hardly in danger of running out of lawyers, black or white. What Washington residents may run out of is patience: they want and deserve a way to recover directly for their losses -- to get what should be coming to them without long and expensive legal hassles.

Council members should vote to approve either the Dixon or Kane no-fault bill.