This study focuses on the damage potential of earthquake ground motions based on the inelastic dynamic response of equivalent single degree of freedom structures. Their yield resistances are selected in accordance with seismic design codes. An index accounting for the accumulation of damage due to inelastic excursions is used to represent structural damage. A set of 94 ground motions are employed for this analysis, which are all scaled to the same peak ground acceleration of 0.4 g. Earthquake ground motions are classified with respect to both the ratio of peak velocity to peak acceleration (VIA ratio) and their effective excitation duration. The effect of these parameters on damage potential is investigated by using sensitivity analysis and probabilistic techniques. It is concluded that both V/A ratio and effective duration significantly influence the damage potential of earthquake ground motions, although they are not represented appropriately by the spectral definitions of earthquake excitations in seismic design codes. (C) 1999 Elsevier Science Ltd. All rights reserved.