Dr. William Haddon Jr., 58, a noted authority on automobile and highway safety and the first director of the old National Highway Safety Bureau, now the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, died of kidney failure March 4 at George Washington University Hospital.

Dr. Haddon, a physician by training who devoted his professional life to safer highway travel, was named head of the safety bureau by President Johnson in 1966. He held the post for three years and is credited with laying the foundation for an effective NHTSA.

He set the first federal safety standards for motor vehicles, and also set standards for state and local laws on drunken driving and requirements that motorcyclists wear helmets.

Consumer advocate Ralph Nader, who first made his reputation on the question of automobile safety, called Dr. Haddon "a major figure in the search for safer-engineered motor vehicles. He brought the subject from one of hunch and surmise to one of rigorous safety analysis."

Since 1969, Dr. Haddon had been president of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, an independent, nonprofit organization supported by the insurance industry and devoted to reducing losses from highway accidents. It has pressed for decades for the mandatory installation of airbags in new automobiles -- a fight still under way -- and for other safety devices for highway travel.

In an interview in 1977, Dr. Haddon said the automobile industry's resistance to airbags was a scandal comparable to Watergate.

"If a mother turns to look at her baby and she goes off the road and hits a pole that shouldn't have been there, that turns a mishap into a fatal event," he said. "I think that's too high a penalty for being human."

Since 1972, Dr. Haddon also has been president of the Highway Loss Data Institute, which collects and distributes data on losses through traffic accidents.

He was born in Orange, N.J., and served in the old Army Air Forces in World War II. He graduated from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology with a bachelor's degree in food technology and received his medical degree at Harvard University, as well as a master's degree in epidemiology at the Harvard School of Public Health.

Dr. Haddon was a public health and highway safety official in New York State for 10 years before joining the federal government. While with the New York State Department of Health, he helped establish quantitative evidence of the role played by alcohol in highway accidents.

Among the honors he received was the Bronfman Prize from the American Public Health Association. In accepting it, Dr. Haddon said he had long had a bias in favor of "the now less-than-popular notion that the understanding and prevention of disease and injury should be the first strategy of medicine and that treatment, no matter how necessary, is not the logical first line of attack."

Dr. Haddon's survivors include his wife, the former Gene Billo, of Bethesda, and three sons, Jonathan William of New York City, and Charles and Robert, both of Bethesda.