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."
The panel's chairman suggested "strong legislative action" was needed, including brake overrides, which would require a relatively inexpensive software upgrade.
The 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 convince 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, president of Toyota Motor North America, said the company would be delivering three data readers to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration today 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 is 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 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.