Ministers blocked a plan to introduce a more stringent driving test using computers because of Euroscepticism and fear of alienating young voters, critics claim.
Last week, Steven Norris, the minister for roads, announced that the new theory test, made mandatory by a European Commission directive, would be a pencil and paper multiple-choice questionnaire, instead of the computerised test previously in envisaged.
In February 1994, John MacGregor, then Secretary of State for Transport, promised that the new test would be a "separate form of test that would increase hazard perception" and "take fullest advantage of technological improvements". Hazard perception is the ability to see potential danger which many inexperienced drivers lack.
In announcing the theory test last week, Mr Norris cited computer difficulties and cost in rejecting the more sophisticated test, and stressed that the new test would improve road safety.
Tenderers for the new written test will be given a three-year contract, possibly with an extension of two, which means that a computerised test will not be introduced until 2001 at the earliest.
However, according to unofficial Department of Transport sources, a computer program had been fully developed and would have been ready to use by the deadline of July 1996.
Andrew Howard, the AA's head of road safety, said: "We are very disappointed that the Government has committed itself to a pencil and paper test. It will make passing the test a bit harder, but it does nothing for road safety. People don't have crashes because they are unaware of what a 30mph road sign looks like."
He said he believed ministers had shied away from the computerised test "partly because they did not want to be seen as conforming too readily to European directives".
Rob Gifford, director of the Parliamentary Advisory Committee on Transport Safety, said: "I suspect ministers were worried about introducing a test that many young people would fail ... They have rejected safety for electoral convenience."