Thousands of British holidaymakers heading for half-term holidays in Florida face arrest if they lack the right paperwork for driving rental cars

It is believed that pressure from local tourism officials, the Foreign Office and motoring organisations triggered the abrupt change of mind

As the main half-term holiday rush gets underway, British holidaymakers heading to Florida and planning to rent a car could find themselves embroiled in bureaucratic bungling.

Last month Florida's legislature broke ranks with the other 49 American states and made it mandatory for overseas visitors to carry an International Driving Permit (IDP) as well as their national licence. Earlier this week, the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles warned that any British driver who broke the new rule would face a mandatory court appearance and possibly jail.

Few British motorists carry the IDP, because the vast majority of holidays and business trips are to places that do not require it. The permits are issued by the AA and RAC by post, or in person at Post Offices - but only by 88 branches in the entire UK, which is less than one per cent of the total.

Leading car-rental companies changed their policies to reflect the new rule, and refused to hire vehicles to motorists who did not have the right paperwork. But last night officials in Florida said that while the law would remain on the statute, drivers who broke it would not be punished.

The department said: “The Florida Highway Patrol will defer enforcement of a law that requires visitors from outside the United States to have an International Driving Permit to drive lawfully in Florida”.

A foreign motorist without the IDP will still technically be breaking state law, and there are fears that anyone involved in an accident could face difficulties with insurance cover as a result. The AA is still recommending that travellers obtain the permit.

The official explanation given for the sudden change of heart was that “the law may potentially conflict with an international treaty”. It is widely believed that pressure from local tourism officials, the Foreign Office and motoring organisations triggered the abrupt change of mind. “The Sunshine State is doing business as usual,” the statement added. “Florida’s doors and roadways are open as usual to all visitors.”

About one million UK citizens visit Florida annually. Rosie Sanderson, who runs the AA’s International Division, said the new law “has thrown the fly-drive market into chaos, with a lot of conflicting advice”.

Rental companies are expected to revoke their rule changes, though the process of informing customers and staff may not take place quickly enough to benefit British families flying to Florida this weekend.