How to save money on your car insurance, seriously

I'm going to tell you something about auto insurance that your agent probably won't: Don't use it.

Auto insurance is a product you should buy but not use. Your goal should be to keep your claims history clean in order to keep your rate as low as possible - except in the event of a major problem that you can't handle without it.

Here are some ways to do that:

Obviously, keep your driving record clean - no speeding tickets, failure to obey traffic lights, or worse. If you have an insurance claim that's only a couple of hundred dollars more than your deductible, don't file. Consider paying the whole thing out of pocket. Rate hikes for at-fault accidents vary widely among insurers, but you could easily be looking at an increase of 40 percent or much more. Do you have towing coverage through your insurer? That's a claim if you use it. Buy roadside assistance somewhere else.

Don't create a lapse in your insurance by neglecting to pay your bill. You'll be pegged as a higher risk.

Those are the don'ts. Here are the do's"

Drive a minivan: More specifically, choose a Chrysler Town & Country LX, a Toyota Sienna or a Honda Odyssey. They are the cheapest 2011 models to insure. (You can use this car insurance comparison tool to look up average rates for 2011 vehicles.)

Worst-case scenario: You live in Michigan and drive a Mercedes SL65 convertible. (If you do, I'd like to hear from you.) Insure.com's research shows that Michigan is currently the most expensive state for car insurance, and the SL65 carries the highest insurance price tag.

The other most expensive 2011 cars to insure are the BMW 750i and 750Li hybrid sedans and the Mercedes SL63 convertible.

Here are the states ranked by car insurance rates.

Shop for rates among multiple companies: You probably haven't done so recently: 73.5 percent of auto insurance customers haven't shopped around in the last 12 months. A 2010 "Insurance Consumer Dynamics Study" by Acxiom revealed that's how many of us are probably leaving money on the table.

And those of us who shop around aren't doing a very good job of it: 36.2 percent got rate quotes from only one company, and 24.6 percent asked for quotes from only two companies, according to Acxiom. You probably comparison-shop more for a bag of cookies.

Even if you don't want to switch companies, you can probably save a few bucks right now. Here are 12 ways to save money on car insurance.

Look at your family: Any changes in your family's driving habits could result in savings. Do you have a teen going off to college in the fall? You can probably get a lower rate if they won't be driving a family car while they're away. Have you recently changed jobs and lowered your annual mileage? That might bring your rate down.

Heck, I know someone who saved $200 a year by adding his girlfriend to his auto policy. Because she's a better "risk," she brought down his rate. Here's more on saving on car insurance by getting a girlfriend.

Blame others: In the end, some factors that go into your car insurance price are out of your control.

States regulate rates, for one thing, so if your state is lenient about approving rate increases, you'll pay more.

And then there are all the bad drivers around you. You really can blame your neighbors for this one. If you live in a ZIP code filled with crashing drivers, car thieves and vandals, those high claims costs will be reflected in the rates for everyone. (More on idiot drivers here.)

Gas prices and car insurance rates

High gas prices have the potential to bring down car insurance rates, but I'm not counting on it.

Whenever gas prices spike, Americans tend to change their driving habits to reduce their mileage. When people stay off the road, it reduces the "exposure," as insurance folks would say, to accidents and other claims.

Yet insurance savings based on gas prices tend to be elusive: We quickly revert back to our old driving habits as soon as there's some relief in gas prices, and we don't end up bringing down claims costs enough to impact rates.

Maybe you're looking at a hybrid to save on gas money. Hybrids almost always cost more to insure than their gasoline counterparts. Russ Rader at the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety tells me that's because hybrid drivers tend to put on more miles, which increases their "exposure" to claims.

But you can probably quickly close the cost gap with your gas savings. The cheapest 2011 hybrid to insure isn't the popular Prius; it's the Mazda Tribute SUV hybrid. See the rankings for hybrid insurance rates.

Check out my interview with Tess Vigeland for more advice on how to save money on your car insurance.

Amy Danise is tbe Sr. Managing Editor at Insure.com. If you found other ways to lower your auto insurance quote, send her an email at editor@insure.com.

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