DOES THE racial makeup of your zip code determine the price of car insurance?

That might seem like a strange question. Unfortunately, City Council has reasons to be asking the Pennsylvania insurance commissioner for an answer.

Most people agree the cost of car insurance should be tied to obviously relevant factors such as type of insurance coverage, driving record, the car you drive, and how many miles you drive per month.

Insurance companies base your premium on these factors, along with your credit score and your education. But what if you found out your premium also was affected by your residency in a predominantly African-American or Latino neighborhood?

A study by the Consumer Federation of America found that a driver who moved from a predominantly white zip code into a predominantly black zip code with the same car and coverage experienced an average premium increase of $671 - 60 percent higher than if the driver had moved into an economically similar white zip code. In Philadelphia, premium disparities between zip codes were on average less extreme, but shocking nonetheless: $269 more, or a full 30 percent hike, if the driver moved from a mostly white zip code into a mostly black or Latino zip code.

Researchers created a profile for a 30 year old woman, licensed for 14 years with fair credit, a high school degree, driving a 14-year-old Honda Civic and purchasing the minimum insurance required. The profile did not list race.

Using Quadrant Information Services, an independent company that tracks insurance rates, the "driver" was given different quotes for zip codes where a majority of the residents were African American and where the majority was white. It was the racial makeup of the driver's neighborhood that determined the price.

Charging higher rates based on race is illegal. The Pennsylvania Insurance Department clearly states insurance companies may not charge different rates based on an applicant's "race, religion or national origin," nor may they unfairly discriminate "based on your place of residence."

City Council will be asking the Pennsylvania Insurance Department to confirm these findings. If discrimination is found, Council will formally ask the department to act against the offending companies. No Pennsylvanian should be charged more for insurance based on the racial composition of their neighborhood.

Lance Haver is director of civic engagement for City Council.