The risk of making an insurance claim in the first year you own a car is slightly higher than average, but only because people tend to drive slightly further in year one than in year two.
All insurers are keen to offer cover to safe, middle-aged drivers with a good no-claims record. But millions of drivers do not fit into that profile, and in the past many insurers, particularly those selling "direct", have treated these higher risks as pariahs. By making prices deliberately unattractive, they ensured such drivers looked elsewhere.
Young drivers, particularly those with sports cars, come into the "sub- standard" risk category. So too do motorists with a drink-driving conviction. But one group of people who traditionally had problems should now get a better deal. Under the new Disability Discrimination Act, insurers cannot charge disabled drivers more than the standard rate for any matching able- bodied motorist, unless they have statistical evidence showing they are a worse risk.
Life is in fact easier for anyone who does not fit the perfect insurance profile. Five years ago, direct insurers only went for good risks - "cherry picking" - so other rates rose disproportionately. Rates for good drivers came down dramatically - and so did profits. Now companies are more flexible. Direct Line may not insure you if you have had problems, but Privilege, its subsidiary, will do so. Traditional insurers like Bishopsgate and Norwich Union are also more liberal than they used to be.
Insurers do not all go for the same market. Hastings Direct, for example, is one of the few direct insurers to take on 19-year-olds driving sporty Golf GTIs, but it will not insure people with a drink-driving conviction.
Normally, a first drink-driving offence will mean a fine and a 12- to 18-month disqualification. When the ban is over, your previous insurer will normally take you on again, but the terms may be punitive (see table). As well as higher premiums, many drivers face having to pay more of any subsequent claim (the excess). Legal & General, for example, bumps up its excess from pounds 100 to pounds 250. One or two companies will restrict you to third- party fire and theft cover, and premiums - as the table shows - can vary enormously.
Specialists will often offer better terms. Emma Kirkaldy of Privilege Insurance claims drivers returning to the wheel after a ban do not revert to previous bad habits: "Almost all of them, " she claims. "They are acutely aware of the risk that they could lose their licences again, and our figures show that, as a group, they make fewer claims than other people.
"We have to allow for the longer-term risk that they may revert back, so rates will always be higher than for the run-of- the-mill driver. But rates overall are almost always lower than elsewhere."
Insurance people may know who is more, or less, sympathetic but ordinary motorists do not. Going to an insurance broker to find the group offering the best rates overall is good advice as far as it goes - but there is a snag.
Certainly brokers can help. Companies like Premium Search are already screen-based, so they can easily find comparative rates for any given risk. And Premium Search can probably find one of the best deals available.
The problem is that brokers only recommend companies which give them commission. That excludes all direct insurers, including specialists like Privilege and Hastings. Sitting down to ring round a mass of direct insurers, and getting a quote from each of them, may seem extraordinarily tedious even if quotes can be given directly over the phone. But it remains the best option for anyone with a potentially large insurance bill.
q Contacts: Premium Search, 0800 109876; Privilege Insurance, 0990 998800; Hastings Direct, 01424 735735; Admiral Insurance, 01222 480000.
THE COST OF A DRINK*
Insurer 1 year no-claims 4 years no-claims Excess
Brokers 'best buy' pounds 497 pounds 303 pounds 200
Privilege pounds 583 pounds 324 pounds 300
Legal & General pounds 1,850 pounds 925 pounds 250
Bishopsgate pounds 737 pounds 440 pounds 225
Norwich Union pounds 738 pounds 540 pounds 100
*Costs of fully comprehensive insurance for a 26-year-old male driving a Ford Escort 1.6LX based in Colchester, driving again after a one-year drink-drive ban.