The Chancellor took pity on motorists by introducing his near-3p a litre fuel rise, planned for next month, in three stages – avoiding an April Fuel’s Day fiasco.

With prices at the pumps already approaching record levels, Mr Darling said he wanted to “ease the pressure on family incomes”.

He decided that the rise would be 1p in April, with a further 1p rise in October, with the final 0.76p increase coming in January 2011.

AA president Edmund King said the phasing in of the rise would “avoid a bad April Fuel’s Day Fiasco.” He added: “Perhaps the thought of 32 million fuming drivers and voters influenced Government thinking.

“Drivers’ relief at the Chancellor not raising fuel duty by the full 3p can be measured by the tankful.

“Had the full increase gone ahead, it would have added £1.50 to the typical cost of refilling a petrol or diesel car, or £37.50 a year.

“For a family with two petrol cars, that alone would have been four times the average increase in council tax for this coming year.”

Peter Mathews, President of the Black Country Chamber of Commerce, said: “The staggered increase in fuel duty will soften the blow for businesses, especially haulage firms.”

Professor Stephen Glaister, director of the RAC Foundation, said: “At last there is some relief for cash-strapped motorists who over the past year have seen the pump price of unleaded leap by 26.4p to almost record levels.

“With nine out of 10 passenger journeys taking place on the roads, and with 28.5 million cars in Britain, every household in the land has felt some financial pain.

“Drivers spend about 15 per cent of their disposable income on motoring and when it comes to fuel prices, every penny really does count.”

James Hookham, the Freight Transport Association’s policy and communications managing director, said: “For companies struggling to stay afloat, a staggered approach to increasing fuel duty will provide some breathing space.

“However, any increase in fuel duty, which is an unavoidable business cost, is bad news for the economy in the long term and a staggered approach will delay its inevitably detrimental effects.”