Automotive side impacts are a leading cause of injuries to the pubic symphysis, yet the mechanisms of those injuries have not been clearly established. Previous mechanical testing of isolated symphyses revealed increased joint laxity following drop tower lateral impacts to isolated pelvic bone structures, which suggested that the joints were damaged by excessive stresses and/or deformations during the impact tests. In the present study, a finite element (FE) model of a female pelvis including a previously validated symphysis sub-model was developed from computed tomography data. The full pelvis model was validated against measured force-time impact responses from drop tower experiments and then used to study the biomechanical response of the symphysis during the experimental impacts. The FE models predicted that the joint underwent a combination of lateral compression, posterior bending, anterior/posterior and superior/inferior shear that exceeded normal physiological levels prior to the onset of bony fractures. Large strains occurred concurrently within the pubic ligaments. Removal of the contralateral constraints to better approximate the boundary conditions of a seated motor vehicle occupant reduced cortical stresses and deformations of the pubic symphysis; however, ligament strains, compressive and shear stresses in the interpubic disc, as well as posterior bending of the joint structure remained as potential sources of joint damage during automotive side impacts. © 2007 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.