Metro Transit's most celebrated driver has never lived up to his nickname, "Crash." And for that, he was honored Thursday.

Jerry Olson was recognized by Metro Transit for having earned 25 Outstanding Operator Awards and 39 consecutive Safe Operator Awards; he's the first to achieve the latter feat.

But his driving life began with two accidents shortly after he got his license in high school. Nobody was hurt — although his pride took a beating. And the '55 Chevy he says he bought for $35 was never the same.

"I rear-ended a car at 42nd and Portland," he said. "My car fell apart. The eight-track player I had cost more than the car did."

His driving record has since taken a sharp turn: Olson has not so much as grazed a mirror while maneuvering his bus through city traffic the past 39 years.

As Metro Transit Police Chief John Harrington reminded a banquet room that honored 59 agency bus and train operators, these are drivers who tolerate drunks, emotionally challenged passengers and crazy drivers, to say nothing of winter weather that sends other motorists skidding home early.

"Role models," Metro Transit General Manager Brian Lamb called the operators. When asked about Olson, 61, Lamb looked at him and said, "What an example he's set. What a great instructor!"

Who would have guessed more than four decades ago, when a Olson was driving a Blue and White cab?

A passenger got out of the 20-year-old's taxi one night at Selby and Dale in St. Paul, without paying his $5 fare. Olson chased the guy into an apartment building and immediately surmised that his passenger was a drug dealer. He never got his $5.

Olson's father was president of the taxi company. When Olson told him the story, his dad was beside himself.

"Selby and Dale?" he asked incredulously. "You're done!"

Olson started at Metro Transit on Oct. 2, 1972, and the idea of "Crash" driving a 40-foot bus was a source of amusement for the high-school buddies who gave Olson his nickname.

When they learned he was making $4.72 an hour — and saw the Harley he bought with his salary — they lined up to fill out their own applications.

That first year, there were a couple of mishaps.

Olson caught a rear bumper against a steel pillar at the Nicollet garage. And he once stopped a bus at 7th Street and Nicollet in downtown Minneapolis, hurried out and chased down a passenger who had run off with another passenger's purse.

"It was stupid," he said. "But the woman wrote a nice letter. Maybe that got me through the first six months."

He's worked almost every metro route imaginable. He's survived potholes and drove through the 1991 Halloween blizzard. He tolerates one of his passengers who is always on her cellphone. He bit his tongue when a woman gave him the finger from her vehicle.

He checks his mirrors, uses his blinkers early and obeys the speed limit. He's learned not to expect the other driver to yield.

"I don't feel like a superstar, but I'm very proud of my record," Olson said.

"It's about patience. If somebody cuts you off, what are you gonna do?"

Paul Levy • 612-673-4419