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Most drivers stick with the same auto insurance company year after year, and that's often a costly mistake.

They don't shop for lower rates because they believe most companies charge about the same prices or conclude the steep discounts they get for their loyalty or lack of speeding tickets or accidents mean they won't find better pricing elsewhere. But they're wrong: Insurance companies charge vastly different rates for the same families and policies. So though your current company might be giving you a price break, you'll likely find a better deal elsewhere.

Nonprofit Twin Cities Consumers' Checkbook compared prices insurers charged for seven illustrative policyholders and found most area drivers can save hundreds of dollars every year by making better auto insurance choices. Many will save more than $1,500. For example:

· One of Checkbook's illustrative couples with two cars living in western Hennepin County and with clean driving records would pay $1,166 per year with GEICO or $1,414 with Amica compared to $2,128 per year with American Family and $2,432 with Allstate.

· If that couple moved to St. Paul and added a teenager to the policy (Gulp!), the annual premium would be $1,468 with Progressive or $2,043 with GEICO. But the two would pay $4,072 with American Family, $4,396 with Farmers and $6,150 with Allstate.

· Checkbook's retired couple with two cars and clean driving histories living in Anoka County would pay $958 per year with Progressive, $1,619 with Liberty, $1,631 with State Farm or $1,636 with Travelers compared to $2,972 with Country and $3,340 with Allstate.

Through a special arrangement with Checkbook, Star Tribune readers can see ratings of local auto insurance companies until April 5 at

You don't have to wait until your current policy term expires to switch and save. If you change companies, your old insurance company must refund the unused share of any prepaid premiums. You also don't have to forsake good service for a better rate: Checkbook's ratings revealed some highly rated companies offer low rates.

Checkbook compared companies for price and quality. Because small differences in policyholder characteristics — many of which have nothing to do with driving records — can have big effects on some companies' premiums, be sure to check rates yourself.

You want to buy enough coverage to protect yourself but not so much that you're wasting money. Avoid common car insurance mistakes by doing the following:

· Maintain the highest deductible amount with which you're comfortable.

· Be vigilant that your coverage doesn't lapse.

· Consider dropping collision and comprehensive coverage when your car's value drops below $5,000.

· Find out how much more it will cost to raise limits beyond standard coverages. It is usually inexpensive to increase limits for liability coverage above standard amounts.

· Carefully consider the extras. Some optional coverages aren't worth much, but companies charge a lot for them.

Many companies now offer discounts if you allow them to track how much you drive, how far, how fast and whether you often do knuckleheaded moves like suddenly accelerate, brake or turn. Under these programs, you get an initial discount (10-15%) for playing along. After three to six months of tracking, your company might offer a bigger discount (on average, an additional 10-15%) if it deems you a "safe" driver. Or it could provide no price break if it decides you're a maniac. Of course, in our world of Big Data and big data breaches, these programs pose big-time privacy problems.

You might think if you've been driving for many years without an accident and with few speeding tickets that insurance companies will offer you their best rates. Unfortunately, that's not necessarily the case. Insurers increasingly are offering their best rates only to customers who meet criteria that have nothing to do with their driving histories.

For example, most companies offer their lowest rates only to customers with excellent credit scores and who are college graduates and homeowners. And companies are increasingly using secretive and opaque methods to calculate rates. With most companies, your credit score and other information might matter more than your driving record. Research from Checkbook and other organizations has found drivers with fair or poor credit scores can pay twice as much as similar drivers who have excellent credit scores, a similar penalty for having a recent at-fault accident or several speeding tickets in the past year.

Twin Cities Consumers' Checkbook magazine and is a nonprofit organization with a mission to help consumers get the best service and lowest prices. We are supported by consumers and take no money from the service providers we evaluate. You can access Checkbook's ratings of auto insurance companies free of charge until April 5 at