WASHINGTON – The Obama administration is considering requiring all cars and trucks sold in the U.S. to have brakes that can override gas pedals to prevent sudden acceleration problems like those that led to reports of deaths and the recall of millions of Toyotas, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood told Congress on Tuesday.

“We’re looking at it,” LaHood told the Senate Commerce Committee. “We think it is a good safety device.”

His comments came as the government raised to 52 the number of reported deaths linked to runaway Toyota vehicles and as Toyota executives returned to Capitol Hill for the third time in a week to try to persuade lawmakers they are urgently fixing any problems.

The executives said the automaker will start making available to U.S. safety regulators sophisticated electronic readers capable of deciphering “black box” data on Toyotas involved in sudden acceleration episodes.

Yoshimi Inaba, the president of Toyota Motor North America, told lawmakers the company would be delivering three data readers to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration on Wednesday and hoped to make the data more accessible to other systems by the middle of 2011.

A reliable override system could be important to U.S. motorists, relieving anxieties created by the Toyota acceleration reports. The “black box” information could help investigators make their own judgments about what has been going wrong.

Multiple recalls have damaged Toyota’s reputation and set the stage for large numbers of death and injury lawsuits amid a criminal investigation by federal prosecutors in New York, a probe by the Securities and Exchange Commission and more scrutiny from the Transportation Department. Since September, Toyota has recalled 8.5 million vehicles — about 6 million in the U.S.

There was a fresh indication Tuesday of how the broad recalls and safety questions have affected Toyota’s business. The company’s U.S. sales fell 9 percent in February while rivals General Motors and Ford posted healthy gains. As part of its effort to rebuild customer loyalty, the company said it will offer repeat buyers two years of free maintenance.

The giant Japanese automaker has said all new models sold in the United States will have the override system by 2011 and that many recalled vehicles will be refitted with it.

The system automatically deactivates the accelerator when the brake pedal is pressed, allowing a safe stop even if the car’s throttle is stuck open.

Committee Chairman Jay Rockefeller asked whether the U.S. should mandate such a system on all cars sold in the U.S.

LaHood responded: “We are looking at the possibility of recommending the brake override system in all newly manufactured automobiles.”

The Commerce Committee is one of three congressional panels studying Toyota’s recall crisis.

The new number of 52 reported deaths — up from 34 previously — came from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, part of the Department of Transportation. Federal officials haven’t formally confirmed the links between deaths and Toyota defects but have seen a spike in complaints since Toyota began a series of big recalls in October.

Toyota executives told the panel the company will give the United States up to 100 “black box” readers and dispatch its engineers to train U.S. technicians on how to use them.