Drivers who earn their living working in blue-collar jobs and do not have a college education stand a greater likelihood of being charged higher rates for minimum liability coverage by several of the nation's largest automobile insurance companies, according to an analysis by the Consumer Federation of America.

''Auto insurers charge high premiums for minimal coverage to most working people -- even those with perfect driving records -- who live in urban areas," said Stephen Brobeck, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based organization.

''Since most Americans need a car and almost all states require the purchase of auto insurance, many lower-income workers are faced with the choice of paying these high, and often unaffordable prices, or breaking the law by driving without insurance."

The consumer group conducted an analysis of the 10 largest auto insurers in May and June and found that five of them use the driver's education and occupation to determine how high or low their insurance premiums will be.

Geico often charges a factory worker with a high school diploma far higher annual premiums than a plant supervisor with a college degree -- 45 percent more in Seattle ($870 versus $599); 40 percent more in Hartford, Conn. ($1,299 versus $926); 33 percent more in Oakland, Calif. ($922 versus $693); 23 percent more in Louisville, Ky. ($2,200 versus $1,791) and 20 percent more in Baltimore ($1,971 versus $1,647).

Researchers said they found Progressive, Liberty Mutual and Farmers insurance companies also have a pattern of charging drivers who work in blue-collar jobs a higher premium for auto insurance than they did white-collar workers.

However, half of the insurance companies -- State Farm, Allstate, USAA, Nationwide and Travelers -- apparently do not use education or occupation in their rate making, at least not in the 10 states the Consumer Federation used in its comparison.

The driver they studied for the analysis was a hypothetical 30-year-old single woman renting in a moderate-income area with a $30,000 median income. She owns a 2003 Honda Civic, which she has driven for 10 years with no accidents or moving violations. She also had been without auto insurance coverage for 15 days at the time researchers began checking rates for her.

The analysis showed if this woman were a factory worker with a high school education, she would be charged high to very high annual premiums for minimum liability coverage by the insurers whose websites permitted rate comparisons.

The quoted prices, especially the nine that exceeded $2,000, show that insurers either are overcharging lower-income consumers or are not interested in serving them, researchers said.

CFA estimates that one-quarter to one-third of drivers with household incomes under $36,000 -- 40 percent of all households -- are uninsured.

One of the largest trade group representing the auto insurance industry -- the Property Casualty Insurers Association of America -- said that laws in all 50 states require insurers to charge actuarially justified rates and that some state agencies, such as in Maryland and New Jersey, charged with enforcing these laws have reviewed the use of rating factors like education and occupation and found them to be justified.

''We know that certain occupations are correlated with a lower level of risk and therefore, all other risks being equal, enjoy a lower rate," said Alex Hageli, director of personal lines policy for the Chicago-based trade group. "We continue to support, as we always have, the use of actuarially justified rating factors. Education and occupation are such factors. We have full confidence in state agencies to ferret out any inappropriate use of rating factors as alleged by CFA."

The study is the latest in a series of reports CFA has released in the past 18 months showing that low- and moderate-income drivers in urban areas are charged higher rates. These reports also revealed a pattern of discriminatory practices that work against drivers who are single, rent, lack continuous insurance coverage and live in moderate-income areas. This study shows those who have less education or work in low-status jobs will often pay more for coverage.

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''The American public knows that it is unfair for auto insurers to use factors like education and occupation in setting rates," said J. Robert Hunter, CFA's director of insurance and a former Texas Insurance Commissioner. "In effect, auto insurers are discriminating on the basis of income and race. States should prohibit the use of these demographic factors that bear no logical relation to insurer risk."

(Reach Tim Grant at Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service,