The prospect of petrol shortages re-emerged last night after tanker drivers rejected a proposed deal offered by six fuel-distribution companies.
About 60 officials from the Unite union overwhelmingly turned down an agreement drawn up after six days of talks that ended amid optimistic signs last Friday.
But the union also urged motorists not to panic-buy and said it had not yet decided whether to name any strike dates.
The AA advised drivers to continue with their normal pattern for buying fuel, saying that talks were likely to resume. "There is no shortage of fuel and we don't want to recreate another self-inflicted shortage," said Edmund King, the AA president.
It is understood that progress was made on a number of issues including pensions, health and safety and training. Diana Holland, Unite's assistant general secretary, said: "While there has been some progress it is clear that our members need more guarantees and assurances from the employers about their commitment to meaningful minimum standards."
Unite officials contacted the conciliation service Acas and said it hoped employers would agree to hold fresh talks in the coming days. The union will have to name strike dates, or other forms of industrial action, by tomorrow afternoon unless employers agree to extend the deadline.
A spokesman for Hoyer, one of the firms involved, described Unite's decision as "a serious blow" and said the employers remained "open to negotiation".
Peter Harwood, chief conciliator at Acas, said: "Naturally, we are disappointed at today's outcome, following the parties' intensive talks."
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