SAN FRANCISCO -- California is considering a new system of car insurance that drivers would pay for through fees at the fuel pump, so the cost would depend more heavily on how much they drive than on traditional factors, such as what type of car they use or where they live.
Insurance companies and trial lawyers hate the idea, which is intended to ease out-of-control increases in insurance costs and the huge problem of uninsured drivers.
But environmentalists also have high hopes that the concept will catch on here and around the country, because, they say, it will raise the price of driving to reflect its cost more accurately, and that will discourage traffic.
The pay-at-the-pump idea is not a new one. Maryland considered such a plan as early as 1972. Legislation was introduced in the California Assembly in 1975 but failed.
Sen. Art Torres, a Los Angeles Democrat who is chairman of the state Senate Insurance, Claims and Corporations Committee, said he would introduce "pay-at-the-pump" legislation calling for a fuel surcharge of 30 cents a gallon, as well as additional vehicle registration fees. The plan would provide a basic insurance policy to all drivers, although people who own expensive cars would probably choose to buy additional coverage privately, which would be permitted.
The proposal's backers say it will address a crisis in automobile insurance in California, which has the one of the highest auto insurance rates in the nation. As many as 6 million of the state's 20 million motorists drive illegally without insurance because of the cost.
The new plan grew out of a book, "Auto Insurance Alert!" (Fireside-Simon & Schuster, 1993), by Andrew Tobias, a financial columnist for Time magazine.
Supporters say the new concept also will eliminate billions of dollars in waste. The California Department of Insurance says 44 cents of every dollar in insurance premiums actually pays for such losses as medical expenses, lost wages and repairs. Under the proposed plan, that will increase to 72 cents of every premium dollar, the department estimates.
The proposal has won the support of the state's insurance commissioner, John Garamendi, who estimates it will save California drivers $4 billion a year, slashing the average amount a motorist spends on auto insurance by one-third.
Although rates vary widely depending on a host of factors, the average driver 30 years old with no violations now pays about $556 a year for basic coverage. Under the plan, such a driver would pay $311, the insurance department said.
Some consumer and environmental groups also have endorsed the plan, praising its simplicity and its potential for unclogging roads and reducing air pollution with economic incentives for people to cut down their driving and switch to fuel-efficient vehicles.
But opposition to the plan has created an alliance between insurance companies and trial lawyers. They characterize the idea as unfair, unrealistic and rife with unanswered questions.
Under a "no fault" provision of the new plan, the insurance would provide a ban on lawsuits for pain and suffering, 100 percent coverage of medical expenses, up to $25,000 for lost wages and $5,000 in collision coverage.
Under the California proposal, additional fees would be collected through vehicle registrations, These would vary depending on the car and the driver's record. A "good driver," one with no more than one moving violation in the last three years, would pay only an additional $20 a year for a driver's license.
Drivers with tarnished records could pay hundreds of dollars more, depending on how many crashes and violations they had incurred.
Backers estimate that the average car would cost an additional $195 to register, but that would vary with the model.