David Helm, left, Molly Helm, center, and Harrison Maud pose...

David Helm, left, Molly Helm, center, and Harrison Maud pose with the boys' automobiles in Enid, Okla. As every driver quickly learns, operating costs are just the beginning. Credit: AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki

If you're younger than 25 and planning to buy car insurance, you can save big by shopping around.

Average auto insurance premiums vary from insurer to insurer, no matter what your age, but the difference is massive when you're a young driver, said Des Toups, senior managing editor at CarInsurance.com, a Menlo Park, Calif.-based auto insurance shopping site.

Whereas a 55-year-old can save an average of $456 a year by shopping multiple insurers, a driver younger than 25 can save a whopping $1,102.

And that's not the difference between the highest and lowest quotes -- it's between the lowest quote and the second-lowest.

"That $1,100 per year is how you measure the difference of opinion between actuaries," Toups said, referring to the number-crunching insurance executives who set premium rates.

One reason the rates vary so dramatically for young people is that their driving records -- usually the most important factor in setting rates -- are a big question mark, said Pete Moraga, spokesman for the Insurance Information Network of California. Young drivers simply don't have enough time behind the wheel to prove whether they're careful drivers.

So each insurer devises its own set of parameters to predict risk. One insurer might give a kid with good grades a huge discount, for example, while another gives grades little weight. There's no consensus.

Moreover, a handful of companies purposely ward off young drivers by charging them rates far higher than competitors.

"The first year or two of any driver's life are fraught with peril and far more likely to produce accidents," Toups said. "So some insurers treat a 16-year-old driver like a poisonous risk."

The lowest quote in the CarInsurance.com survey for covering the average 16-to-24-year-old driver was $3,152 -- more than twice the premium charged a 55-year-old for the same coverage.

One way to possibly save money is to add the young driver to a family policy. The costs for doing that vary widely among insurance companies, so again it pays to shop around.

Here's an example of how the costs can be so different: Some insurers base their rates for adding a young driver on the most expensive car in the household. Others allow the policyholder to state which car or cars the young person will drive.

And there's little agreement among insurers over possible changes in family policy costs if the young driver goes off to college without taking a car included in the coverage. Some insurers whittle back the premium a hair, figuring that the child will drive plenty during summer and winter vacations.

Others take the child off the family policy in the belief that the young driver will use the car only sporadically.

"There are so many variables, you can never tell when one insurer is going to have the magic combination that is going to give you a massive discount," Toups said. "If you have children under the age of 25 driving on your policy, you are a prime candidate for shopping around."

(Kathy M. Kristof, author of "Taming the Tuition Tiger" and "Investing 101," welcomes your comments and suggestions but regrets that she cannot respond individually to letters or phone calls. E-mail her at kathykristof24@gmail.com.)

(c) 2011 Tribune Media Services, Inc.

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